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Articles about Wrongful Convictions

Probable Cause Hearing Delay Actionable

The court of appeals for the Seventh circuit held that the fact issue as to whether an arrestee's detention without a probable cause hearing resulted from the sheriff's deliberate decision not to monitor detainees brought to jail by outside agencies precluded summary judgement for the sheriff on an official capacity claim. However, the court also held that the sheriff could not be held liable in his individual capacity.

On December 22, 1993, 18 year old Billy Luck was arrested by Indiana State Trooper Thomas Littlefield after admitting to Littlefield that he had been involved in some recent thefts. Luck was transported to the Kosiusko County Jail, where Trooper Littlefield relinquished custody of Luck to the authority of Sheriff Rovenstine.

Luck was processed into the jail on a charge of felony theft, where he languished for eight days without a probable cause hearing. On day eight, Sheriff Rovenstine was informed that Luck had been detained for eight days on the basis of a warrantless arrest without being brought before a judge or magistrate for a probable cause hearing. After Sheriff Rovenstine contacted the Kosciusko County Prosecutor's office, he was directed to release Luck, who was then released the same day.

After ...

Juveniles Held Hostage for Profit by CSC in Florida

According to a consultant hired by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Pahokee Youth Development Center (Juvenile prison) operated by the Correctional Services Corporation (CSC) kept ten juvenile detainees beyond their release dates for no other reason than to beef up corporate profits.

Consultant David Bachman wrote in a November 1998 report to the state that the youths were detained beyond their release dates so they would be included in a quarterly head count used to determine the amount of funding that CSC receives. Bachman said he found a memo indicating the juveniles were to be held longer than necessary.

The Sarasota, Florida-based CSC has a three-year, $30 million contract to manage juvenile detention centers in Pahokee and Polk County. The company operates 15 other juvenile facilities nationwide and in Puerto Rico.

The state of Florida pays CSC an average of $68.40 per detainee/day at the 350 bed Pahokee lockup; the local school district pays the company an additional $2.5 million annually to provide educational services there.

The juveniles who were kept beyond their release dates were scheduled to go home a week before the quarterly school board head count. Delaying the release of the ten youths to include ...

Mitigation Instruction and Excluding Indemnification Evidence Reversible Error

The court of appeals for the Seventh circuit held that a district court erred when it did not allow a jail detainee plaintiff to introduce evidence of a state indemnification statute after the defendants told a jury that a damages verdict would adversely affect them personally. The court also held ...

Pardon Satisfies Heck

The court of appeals for the Eighth circuit held that a governor's pardon invalidates a criminal conviction in order to permit a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim for damages to proceed. Johnny Wilson, a mentally retarded Missourian, pleaded guilty to a murder he did not commit in order to avoid the death penalty. After nine years in prison he received a gubernatorial pardon based on his innocence.

Wilson sued various police officials under § 1983 claiming they conducted a biased investigation, intimidated witnesses and provided false information in order to secure his conviction. The district court dismissed the suit, holding that under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364 (1994), the § 1983 claims could not proceed because it would cast doubt on the validity of Wilson's criminal conviction if he prevailed.

The court of appeals reversed and remanded. The court held that for purposes of Heck , a gubernatorial pardon will invalidate and expunge a criminal conviction, thus allowing a § 1983 claim for money damages to proceed. See: Wilson v. Lawrence County, Missouri, 154 F.3d 757 (8th Cir.).

Illegal Detention Violates Substantive Due Process

The court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the detention of an individual for 57 days in a county jail on a civil contempt warrant "shocks the conscience" and violates substantive due process. The court further held that this right was clearly established, and the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.

On August 17, 1994, a bench warrant was issued for the arrest of sixty-two year-old Walter Armstrong for failure to appear for a contempt hearing regarding child support arrearages. Sheriff's deputies arrived at Armstrong's house on Friday, August 26, to execute the warrant, but they suggested that Armstrong voluntarily surrender on Monday to avoid a "weekend stay" in the county jail.

On Monday, Armstrong reported as proposed, but a series of bureaucratic snafus, beginning with a transposed case number, resulted in Armstrong's continuous confinement well beyond the period normally required to resolve these contempt citations. Although Armstrong periodically protested his confinement, it was not until Armstrong's employer hired an attorney that he gained his release.

Once freed, Armstrong filed a civil rights action in federal court against the sheriff, the jail commander, and three county jail guards in their individual and officials capacities. He also brought ...

Spencer Applied to Parolee's § 1983 Claim

Spencer Applied to Parolee's § 1983 Claim

Afederal district court in California held that a state parolee could file suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging his parole revocation and an illegal parole search without first having a favorable ruling on these issues from another court via habeas corpus or direct appeal.

In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364 (1994) [ PLN , Sep. 1994] the supreme court held that prisoners could not file civil rights suits on issues where a ruling in their favor would cast doubt on the validity of their criminal conviction. This requires that would be plaintiffs must first successfully challenge their conviction or parole revocation in state or federal court and then file suit under § 1983 seeking damages. This doctrine was recently extended to prison disciplinary hearings involving the loss of good time credits. See: Edwards v. Balisok, 117 S.Ct. 1585 (1997) [ PLN , July, 1997]. Heck has also been applied to parole proceedings. See: Butterfield v. Bail, 120 F.3d 1023 (9th Cir. 1997).

In the August, 1998, issue of PLN we reported Spencer v. Kemna, 118 S.Ct. 978 (1998) where the supreme court held that civil rights plaintiffs were ...

Cases of Interest From the U.S. Supreme Court's 1997-98 Term

Forfeitures: In a federal criminal case the supreme court held that the Excessive Fines clause of the Eighth amendment prohibits "grossly disproportionate" forfeitures of funds. The court held that forfeitures are "fines'' if they are punishment for a crime. The underlying case involved a defendant convicted of taking $357,144 out of the country without reporting it to customs. The district court held that only $15,000 could be forfeited while the government sought to seize the entire amount. The ninth circuit affirmed as did the supreme court. This is the first time the supreme court has applied the excessive fines clause to a forfeiture case. See: United States v. Bajakajian , 118 S.Ct. 2028 (1998).

Parole: The supreme court reversed the Pennsylvania supreme court and held that illegally obtained evidence can be used in parole revocation hearings and the exclusionary rule does not apply. A Pennsylvania parolee's home was illegally searched and weapons were found. The weapons were introduced at a parole revocation hearing. The Pennsylvania supreme court held that illegally seized evidence couldn't be used at parole revocation hearings. See: 698 A.2d 32, 548 PA. 418 (1997). The U.S. supreme court reversed, holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply ...

Zain Fallout Continues

Fred Zain was a crime lab serologist, who tested evidence for the West Virginia state police from 1979 to 1989, and was chief of serology his last five years. During that time Zain falsified evidence and testified about the results of tests he never performed.

In 1989, Zain took a letter of recommendation from the West Virginia governor and headed to Texas, where he was named head of serology at the Baxter County medical examiner's office in San Antonio. Zain worked there until 1992 when his West Virginia shenanigans came to light. [See: "Fraudulent Police Chemist Flees Justice", PLN Vol. 5, No. 10]

An investigation was triggered by the case of West Virginian Glen Dale Woodall, whose 1987 rape convictions were overturned after DNA tests showed he could not have committed the crime for which he had already served five years. In 1993, the WV supreme court invalidated as many as 138 felony convictions because of evidence tainted or fabricated by Zain. Woodall was awarded $1 million for his false incarceration. William O'Dell Harris, also convicted by flawed testimony from Zain, was later awarded $1.8 million.

In October, 1997, West Virginian Gerald Wayne Davis settled for a reported $650,000 in ...

No Immunity for Florida Private Jail

The district court for the middle district of Florida held that the sheriff, the county and a private corporation operating the county jail were liable for detaining an arrestee for 30 days without a probable cause hearing. The court also held that monetary damages were the proper remedy and that the private operator was not entitled to qualified immunity.

On September 18, 1992, Thomas Blumel was arrested by a Florida sheriff's deputy for allegedly violating a restraining order obtained by his estranged wife as an adjunct to a divorce action. Blumel was booked into the county jail, which was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) under contract with the county.

The day after his arrest Blumel was brought before a county judge for a "first appearance," which is normally intended as a probable cause hearing. However, the judge in this instance was not the same judge who issued the restraining order, so he could not rule on the contempt. Blumel was neither released nor offered bail because his arrest was a warrantless arrest.

A month after Blumel was arrested the judge who issued the restraining order finally held a hearing on the matter. As a result the contempt ...

Prisoners Held Beyond Release Date Sue

Four civil rights attorneys filed suit against Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and other officials for falsely imprisoning thousands of people each year by holding them beyond their scheduled release dates. "We intend to seek an injunction under the taxpayer action and force Sheriff Block to stop this wasteful and illegal practice," lead attorney John C. Burton said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times April 25, 1997. Sheriff's officials declined to comment on the allegations, citing the pending litigation.

The Sheriff's Department has quietly admitted it's tracking system for prisoners is obsolete and faulty. By April, some 200 people had been held beyond their release dates in Los Angeles County so far. The Department has been paying departing prisoners held too long in exchange for their agreement not to sue. To date this year, more than $26,000 has been paid to 30 people held an average of 17 days beyond their court ordered release dates according to figures obtained by the newspaper under the California Public Records Act.

The attorneys applied to have the lawsuit certified as a class action and, through court discovery, were working to identify other potential plaintiffs. This is the second such lawsuit ...