Judge Ada Brown decided on April 27 to deny the request to release prisoners from the Dallas County jail due to concerns over conditions related to coronavirus.
On May 22, she released her opinion detailing the rationale behind her denial of the writ of habeas corpus and temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiff prisoners.
Plaintiffs, who were inmates in the Dallas County jail, filed suit in April seeking their release from the Dallas County jail because of the COVID-19 cases there. The first inmate tested positive on March 25. As of May 22 when the opinion was issued, no inmates in the jail had died from COVID-19.
While the court was deeply concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the jail, Brown determined that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of proof and therefore were denied the relief sought.
In considering the case, Brown reviewed the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for each inmate remaining in the jail. Fewer than 200 out of the over 4000 inmates were being held on misdemeanor charges.
“With few exceptions, all inmates being held, whether on felony charges or misdemeanor charges, have prior convictions involving crimes of violence or prior convictions that may cause public safety concerns if the inmates were to be released,” Brown noted in her opinion.
She cited a specific example of Plaintiff Roger Morrison who asked to be released based on high blood pressure, hepatitis C, and cirrhosis of the liver. He is in jail for a felony: evading arrest with a prior conviction. His rap sheet includes multiple felony convictions including a felony robbery, felony theft from a grave/corpse, two felony burglaries, two felony DWI incidents, and several misdemeanors including assault.
Additionally, a protective order is granted against him for family violence.
“Just as it would be a grave injustice to incarcerate a mass of individuals with a blanket order, so too the mass release of inmates without individualized assessments could create a public safety hazard,” Brown expressed in her opinion, agreeing in large part with Judge Lee Rosenthal who decided a similar case in Harris County.
She believes that the criminal district attorney, defense attorneys, and judges have adequately reviewed the situation and worked diligently to release as many inmates as is feasible.
“From this Court’s review of the NCIC records of the remaining inmates, it is clear that those inmates Dallas county would not object to releasing have already been let go.”
Brown also seemed troubled by the plaintiffs’ definition of a “medically vulnerable” prisoner, which she said was “significantly broader than the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s list. The plaintiffs sought release of those who were already infected with COVID-19 and those they considered “medically vulnerable.”
Plaintiffs proposed that the court supervise the jail’s coronavirus mitigation efforts, order the housing of released prisoners if they did not have a place to self-isolate, and evaluate the release of “medically vulnerable” and other prisoners for compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Brown rejected this plan as “essentially taking over the jail, appointing an expert to manage it, and having the expert report back to the Court.” The judge said this raised important federalism and separation of powers concerns as it would take discretion away from state and local elected officials who were the appropriate ones to supervise the jail.
The judge rejected the habeas corpus petition as the inappropriate remedy to address civil rights claims made by the plaintiffs based on the conditions of confinement.
Additionally, the court pointed out that the plaintiffs needed to exhaust their remedies at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals before filing a federal court petition for habeas corpus relief. In the case, the plaintiffs have not exhausted any possible state court remedies available to them.
Judge Brown also denied the plaintiffs’ claims that their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated. She found that the Fifth Circuit decision in the case of Valentine v. Collier on April 22 to be dispositive in foreclosing the plaintiffs’ claims.
The Fifth Circuit required that plaintiffs must show “an objectively intolerable risk of harm” by the defendants.
Just as in the Valentine case, the Dallas County plaintiffs did not prove to the court that the Dallas County jail was deliberately indifferent to the harm that existed (COVID-19) and disregarded the risks of that harm to inmates in the jail. In fact, the defendants showed many actions taken to protect inmates.
Again, the court pointed out that in seeking injunctive relief, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires prisoners to exhaust available administrative remedies. In this case, the Dallas inmates did not exhaust the Dallas County Jail grievance procedure before filing the federal civil rights lawsuit.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.