Jonathan Rhodes, managing attorney of The Rhodes Law Firm in New Orleans, has successfully won a civil rights appeal in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court brought by the State of Louisiana in the case of Robert Parker v. Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, et al. Special thanks go to Sam Weiss of Rights Behind Bars for very effective oral argument on behalf of Mr. Parker.
The big takeaway from the Rhodes Law Firm victory in the 5th Circuit is that the government can indeed be held accountable when they violate a person's constitutional right to timely release from prison. In this case, Mr. Parker filed suit against the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and numerous other defendants, who held him in jail without due process for nearly a year beyond his release date. The State appealed, arguing that the Secretary of Corrections should be immune from suit under the doctrine of Qualified Immunity. However, the 5th Circuit denied the Secretary's claim of immunity because The Rhodes Law Firm had established that the defendant showed "deliberate indifference" to Mr. Parker's constitutional rights.
Qualified Immunity often comes up when we hear about a governmental employee who cannot be sued for something done in the course of his or her official duties. However, if that employee is "deliberately indifferent" to a "clearly established" constitutional right, then the doctrine of immunity will not apply. Common sense tells us that if the government is flagrantly violating a citizens rights, we have to be able to hold them accountable.
Nevertheless, scores of overdetained inmates have not been able to hold their jailers accountable due to the doctrine of immunity. In fact, last year The Times Picayune/Nola.com reported on the case of Grant v. Gusman in which 5th Circuit ruled that a New Orleans man could not hold the head of the Secretary of Corrections responsible for his overdetention. However, attorney Jonathan Rhodes and the Rhodes Law Firm's recent victory for Mr. Parker sets a new precedent for overdetained citizens to redress their grievances.
How did Mr. Parker come to be held in prison for 337 days beyond his release date without a trial? It’s a common American creed that we do not jail our citizens without due process. Americans do not simply put people in jail and throw away the key. Unfortunately, that creed is violated on a regular basis by the State of Louisiana. According to a review by the U.S. Department of Justice, and as reported by the Washington Post and the New York Times, over the course of just four months in 2022, "27 percent of the people who were legally entitled to be released from state custody, some for minor crimes or first-time offenses, were held past their release dates. About 24 percent of those improperly detained had been held 90 days or longer past their release days."
The Times has also reported that "about 200 inmates are held beyond their legal release dates on any given month in Louisiana, amounting to 2,000 to 2,500 of the 12,000 to 16,000 prisoners freed each year." Sadly, these problems are well documented and well known in Louisiana, yet nothing has been done to correct it. The Advocate reported that the Louisiana Secretary of Corrections acknowledged in court filings in 2020 that, "[a]s far back as 2012, a "Lean Six Sigma" review of the inmate time calculation process found that overdetention was a serious issue," and that the DPSC was "overdetaining 2,252 inmates per year for an average 72 extra days each."
This staggering pattern of violating constitutional rights was exactly what happened to Mr. Parker in 2017. Rather than walk out a free man on his release date, Mr. Parker was held for an additional 337 days due to a combination of administrative incompetence, systemic failures and general neglect. Here are some of the facts and law of this important case.
On December 21, 2016, Parker was arrested while on probation and placed in the Orleans Parish Prison. On March 27, 2017, a Louisiana state court sentenced Parker to two years of imprisonment for violating his probation but awarded him credit for the months he served in the parish prison. Three days later, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (“DPSC”) assumed custody of Parker.
Parker was set for release on October 9, 2017. However, rather than return Mr. Parker to his community, the state literally crossed out his release date and stated that he was a sex offender, requiring Parker to provide a post-release residency plan. However, Mr. Parker was not a sex offender. Rather than release Mr. Parker, the state decided to hold him in jail without cause.
During the course of his overdetention. Parker submitted several inmate request forms. In his first two requests, Parker asked to meet with Warden Ray Hanson about his release date. He filed two other forms in an attempt to provide the the Department of Corrections with addresses detailing where he could reside upon his release. Parker also consistently disputed that he was a sex offender.
Thankfully, Parker's former public defender was finally able to contact the relevant corrections personnel and Mr. Parker was eventually released, but not until 337 days after his proper release date. In other words, Mr. Parker was denied his freedom for nearly an entire year without due process.
Attorney Jonathan Rhodes of the Rhodes Law Firm in New Orleans filed a civil rights suit in Louisiana state court against the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and Secretary James LeBlanc, along with numerous other defendants. Parker alleges that the defendants violated his constitutional rights by detaining him past his release date. He also claims that the defendants committed similar violations against other state inmates. LeBlanc and the other defendants removed the case to federal court based on federal question jurisdiction, specifically the claims Parker raised under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The recent ruling by the 5th Circuit was a big win for Mr. Parker, and for civil rights in Louisiana. As a published opinion with no dissent, the ruling achieved by Jonathan Rhodes in New Orleans creates new law that will help to secure justice for the hundreds of additional overdetained citizens in Louisiana.
From a legal perspective, the Fifth Circuit decision is important in two key ways. First, it holds that there should be a very broad interpretation of what kind of overdetention can be added together to show a pattern. LeBlanc argued that Parker's idiosyncratic facts of being "misclassified as a sex offender" should not be read to fall within the broader pattern, that there was "a meaningful distinction between Parker’s overdetention due to his alleged misclassification as a sex offender, as opposed to overdetention due to miscalculations of his sentence or his status being generally lost in the system." The Fifth Circuit disagreed, endorsing the trial court's conclusion that the problem was more general, that "the real problem alleged in the Legislative Audit report was the Department 'not knowing when [inmates’] proper release date was' and that 'inmate sentences have been ‘done wrong’' as stated in testimony from Chowns v. LeBlanc." Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit holds that Parker's "complaint sufficiently alleges the requisite 'pattern' of constitutional violations by untrained employees to establish deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train." Second, the ruling by the 5th Circuit in Parker provides a minimum basis from which an overdetention plaintiff can show a violation of clearly established law. The Parker court was explicit that the appropriate level of specificity for analyzing the clearly-established prong in an overdetention case is this: "‘There is a Clearly Established Right to Timely Release from Prison." Jonathan Rhodes is proud to represent clients in pivotal civil rights cases, as part of his wider practice in business, technology, real estate and civil litigation. For more information about the Rhodes Law Firm in New Orleans, or to work with us nationally, click here.
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