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Prison Officials Get Qualified Immunity in Botched Sentencing

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prison officials did not have a clearly-established duty to seek out original court records in response to a prisoner's unsupported claim that he was being imprisoned for a term longer than his ordered sentence. The court granted the officials' request for qualified immunity.

The opinion has the unique distinction of being both well-reasoned, and a miscarriage of justice, a feat we didn't think possible.

Cornelius Alston was twice sentenced under two separate, unrelated sentencing orders. While both orders stated that Alston's sentences were to run concurrently, there is no evidence that the Offender Management Office of Hawaii's Department of Public Safety (DPS) ever received the second order.

Until 2005, DPS had a practice of treating sentences issued at different times for different crimes as concurrent unless the judgment for the later crime stated that they were to be served consecutively. The practice, however, was inconsistent with Hawaii state law, which, when Alston was sentenced, mandated consecutive prison sentences absent a court-order for concurrent sentences.

In June 2007, approximately two months before his scheduled August 2007 release date, DPS sent Alston a letter explaining that his maximum term release date had been recalculated to conform to Hawaii state law, and set for November 2011.

Alston was understandably annoyed, and wrote several letters in response arguing that the new release date was incorrect because his sentences were supposed to run concurrently. The Office of the Public Defender eventually sought and received an amended judgment on December 27, 2007. Alston was released the same day.

Alston sued the DPS officials, alleging that their failure to properly investigate his sentence resulted in over-detention. The officials moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

The district court denied the qualified immunity request, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, finding that the circuit's precedent did not establish a duty to obtain a prisoner's court file where the institutional file appeared complete.

Because Alston's sentence was properly recalculated under state law, and Alston had not provided DPS officials evidence otherwise, the Ninth Circuit found that the officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

We understand the Ninth Circuit's reasoning, but we feel uneasy about telling prisoners who are detained beyond their release date that no one is accountable for such mistakes. How do you think this problem should be rectified?

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