A federal judge in Washington ruled Monday the District of Columbia is liable for the unconstitutional revocation of a former prisoner's parole, setting up a trial on monetary damages for the ten extra years the man spent behind bars.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the man, Charles Singletary, is entitled to compensation for the District's violation of his civil rights. Singletary has demanded $20 million.
Jackson's ruling was the first of its kind in Washington federal district court. The judge said Singletary’s case posed “a difficult question of first impression.” The District could decide to challenge the ruling on appeal.
"The D.C. Government has striven mightily to shirk responsibility for its unconstitutional and repugnant behavior," a lawyer for Singletary, Stephen Leckar of Washington's Shainis & Peltzman, said today. "It is good to see Charles’s lengthy fight for justice rewarded."
Singletary was released in 1990 after serving more than seven years on a prison sentence of nine to 27 years in an armed robbery case.
Five years later, he was arrested for his alleged role in the murder of a man named Leroy Houtman. Singletary was not indicted, and charges were later dropped.
The D.C. Board of Parole, however, revoked Singletary’s parole based in part on statements from two people, who lacked first-hand knowledge, gave to the authorities, according to Jackson’s ruling. Singletary’s pro se effort in D.C. Superior Court to gain his freedom failed.
An assistant federal public defender helped Singletary petition a Washington federal trial judge. The petition failed. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2006 ordered a new parole hearing, saying the revocation was based on a hearsay record.
“A parole revocation hearing is not a criminal trial, and the same standards of proof and admissibility do not apply,” Judge Janice Rogers Brown said in the appeals court opinion. “Yet though the government is not required to carry a heavy burden in such proceedings, it cannot return a parolee to prison based on a record as shoddy as this one.”
The U.S. Parole Commission determined in 2006 that there was not enough evidence to permit a parole revocation. Singletary was placed on supervisory release and completed it without incident, Jackson said. (The D.C. parole board is defunct, its responsibilities since transferred to the commission.)
Singletary sued in April 2009 to seek monetary damages from the District for what he alleged was the unlawful revocation of his parole.
A spokesman for the District’s Office of the Attorney General, Ariel Waldman, did not immediately comment this morning on the ruling.
Lawyers for the District, the judge said, argued the parole board can only be held liable—if at all—for an unconstitutional policy, not for an individual decision.
The D.C. Parole Board, the city’s lawyers said, was not the final policymaker for the District on the parole revocation issue.
“To the contrary, the Parole Board was constrained by policies that were not of its own making and acted in contravention of those policies,” the city’s attorneys said in court papers filed in October.
Jackson dismissed the argument, ruling that the board’s decision to revoke Singletary’s parole was an “act of official government policy.”
Jackson said in the ruling she “wrestled” with the opinion. The parole board’s revocation policy, she said, did not on its own violate Singletary’s rights.
Singletary’s lawyers, who also include Neal Goldfarb of Butzel Long Tighe Patton, said in the suit that Singletary went blind in prison after his parole was revoked due to inadequate medical care behind bars.
Singletary, his lawyers said, is entitled to damages “for the ten years of his life that were taken away from him.” Goldfarb said in an interview that Singletary "really did put his life back together after he was paroled the first time."
There's a pending settlement on the table that the District declined to talk about until after Jackson ruled on the summary judgment motion, Goldfarb said.