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Knowles v. Johnson

March 23, 2010



Plaintiff Alvin Knowles ("Knowles") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 against the State of New York ("NYS"); the New York State Division of Parole ("NYSDOP"); the New York State Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS"); as well as five individually-named officers and agents of NYS, NYSDOP, and DOCS, and John/Jane Does 1-50, individually and in their capacities as agents of the Individual Defendants (collectively, the "Defendants").*fn1 Knowles seeks $960 million in compensatory and punitive damages.*fn2

On March 5, 2009, the Defendants moved to dismiss the second amended complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Court grants Defendants' motion in part and stays the action pending resolution of controlling issues of law by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

On August, 11, 1999, New York Supreme Court Judge Hebert Altman imposed a determinate sentence of seven years on Knowles for attempted arson in the second degree. Under New York law, this is a violent felony. New York's Sentencing Reform Act of 1998 ("Jenna's Law") abolished indeterminate sentences for violent felonies, imposed definite terms of incarceration, and mandated Post-Release Supervision ("PRS"). N.Y. Penal Law § 70.02; § 70.45. Judge Altman did not impose a period of PRS. When Knowles was released from prison on June 3, 2005, however, DOCS, as was customary, administratively-imposed a five-year period of PRS, and New York State courts sanctioned this process.

On September 19, 2006, Knowles was arrested pursuant to violations of his PRS conditions, for which, on October 30, 2006, he was sentenced to a twelve month period of confinement in a New York correctional institution. On February 28, 2007, Knowles petitioned the Dutchess County Supreme Court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (the "Habeas Petition"), alleging that the parole violation warrant was unconstitutional because Knowles' PRS was not judicially-imposed. On May 16, 2007, Judge Thomas J. Dolan of the Dutchess County Supreme Court granted Knowles' Habeas Petition, voiding Knowles' administratively-imposed PRS and ordering Knowles' immediate release. On May 30, 2007, Knowles was released from custody of parole, DOCS, and the State of New York, after spending over eight months in prison.

On May 21, 2008, Knowles filed his original complaint in this action, bringing causes of action for: (i) constitutional violations of depravation of liberty without due process under theories of: false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution, and (ii) common law claims of: false arrest; false imprisonment; malicious prosecution; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent hiring, retention, and supervision; and negligence.

Knowles bases his § 1983 and state claims on: (i) a five-year sentence of "PRS" starting on June 3, 2005, and (ii) an eight-month plus prison sentence spanning from September 19, 2006 through May 30, 2007. Specifically, Knowles alleges that he is entitled to civil damages because: (i) DOCS, acting without a judicial pronouncement, unconstitutionally and tortiously imposed his PRS sentence, and (ii) his subsequent arrest and incarceration for non-compliance with PRS conditions was unconstitutional and tortious because his underlying PRS sentence was unconstitutional.

Knowles is not the only person who had PRS administratively-imposed and was subsequently incarcerated for a violation thereof. Many others are similarly situated. New York's policy of administratively imposing PRS has occasioned a substantial amount of federal and state litigation.*fn3

Following the enactment of Jenna's Law, New York State courts routinely upheld administratively-imposed PRS sentences. Scott v. Fischer, 2009 WL 928195, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. March 30, 2009).In June 2006, however, in Earley v. Murray, the Second Circuit held that imposition of an extra-judicial PRS is unconstitutional -- violative of fundamental Due Process rights -- because only a judge has the power to restrict constitutionally-protected liberties through incarceration or PRS. 451 F.3d at 71. Earley's holding conflicted with New York's time-honored sentencing practices, in which DOCS unilaterally administratively-imposed PRS in the absence of an oral pronouncement from the sentencing judge. Earley thus precipitated a flurry of litigation, culminating in opinions by the New York Court of Appeals and, ultimately, corrective state legislation.

Earley did not, however, immediately change entrenched PRS sentencing practices; many New York State courts continued to allow DOCS to impose PRS terms. These courts understood Penal Law § 70.45 to apply automatically -- by operation of law -- to tack the mandatory PRS onto a court-imposed determinate term; indeed, both sentencing courts and appellate courts alike understood that Penal Law § 70.45 did not require any affirmative judicial act. See e.g., People v. Bell, 305 A.D.2d 694 (2d Dep't 2003). These courts held that DOCS was merely enforcing -- and not imposing -- sentences and thus did not offend Earley. Scott, 2009 WL 928195, at *3.

New York achieved uniformity of practice only in April 2008, when the New York Court of Appeals decided two cases: Matter of Garner v. N.Y.S. Dep't of Corr. Servs., 10 N.Y.3d 358 (2008) and People v. Sparber, 10 N.Y.3d 457 (2008)). Both Garner and Sparber require proactive judicial PRS imposition, holding that the failure of a judge to pronounce a PRS term at sentencing is constitutional procedural error. Garner, 10 N.Y.3d, at 362; Sparber, 10 N.Y.3d, at 470.

In accordance with Garner and Sparber, the New York legislature passed N.Y. Corr. Law § 601-d, creating a procedure allowing for the resentencing of improperly-sentenced defendants. See Scott, 2009 WL 928195, at *3, *6-*7 (noting, based on Earley, Garner, and N.Y. Corr. Law § 601-d, that resentencing -- and not release -- is the proper remedy for administratively-imposed PRS).

Earley's implications for § 1983 liability are unclear. Since Earley held that imposition of an extra-judicial PRS violates fundamental Due Process rights, administrative imposition of PRS and any consequent incarceration for PRS violations are also unconstitutional and can thus give rise to § 1983 civil liability. The doctrine of qualified immunity, however, protects government officials from civil liability for conduct that "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982).

Several courts have held that Earley clearly established the unconstitutionality of New York's long-standing administrative PRS-imposition procedure. Rodriguez v. Fischer, et. al., 2010 WL 438421 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 3, 2010), at *6; Santiago v. Fischer, 2009 WL 3852001 (E.D.N.Y. 2009), at *5; Scott, 2009 WL 928195, at *5.

This does not, however, end the qualified immunity inquiry; even if a right is clearly established, "an officer is still entitled to qualified immunity if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on the legality of the action at issue in its particular factual context." Santiago, 2009 WL 3852001, at *5. Courts are conflicted on this issue. See Rodriguez, 2010 WL 438421, at *6 (upholding qualified immunity defense of DOCS officers who incarcerated plaintiff for violations of an administratively-imposed PRS since New York courts continued to uphold the practice even after Earley was decided, allowing plaintiffs to rely on a presumptively-valid state statute ); but see Santiago, 2009 WL 3852001, at *5 (rejecting qualified immunity defense of DOCS officers, in light of Earley, where DOCS officers incarcerated plaintiff for violations of an administratively-imposed PRS). Moreover, Judge Buchwald has held that DOCS officials holding a prisoner in custody for violations of terms of an administratively-imposed PRS are immune from civil liability -- despite Earley -- ...

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