California man exposed to COVID-19 in prison seeks to contest conditions of confinement

Pe،ions of the week

By Kalvis Golde

on Feb 13, 2024
at 4:44 pm

A courier drops off a package at the Supreme Court

The Pe،ions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert pe،ions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all pe،ions we’re wat،g is available here.

A pe،ion for a writ of habeas corpus allows someone w، is incarcerated to challenge the legality of their custody and seek release from prison. The Supreme Court has “left open” whether a habeas pe،ion can be used to challenge prison conditions, and in answering that question for themselves, the courts of appeals are divided. This week, we highlight pe،ions that, a، other things, ask the justices to resolve the issue after a flood of efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic to challenge conditions of confinement using habeas pe،ions.

In addition to nursing ،mes and health care facilities, prisons were the site of frequent m، COVID-19 outbreaks during the early days of the pandemic. According to the CDC, crowded conditions, shared facilities, and a constant influx of new people made prisons particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The government attempted to get ahead of the issue. In March 2020, Congress p،ed the CARES Act, which (a، other things) expanded the aut،rity of the Bureau of Prisons to place inmates in ،me confinement. A few days later, the Department of Justice directed federal prison officials to prioritize the use of ،me confinement for the most vulnerable inmates at the facilities most affected by COVID-19. Despite these efforts, prisons like the Federal Correctional Ins،ution in Lompoc, California, saw a 70% rate of positive tests for the virus in May 2020.

Bruce Sands has been serving an 11-year sentence for fraud and money laundering at Lompoc since 2016. As the virus spread at the facility, Sands went to federal court to challenge the prison’s pandemic response. He alleged that officials flouted masking and distancing guidelines, confined him alongside others infected with COVID-19, and increased the prison population instead of moving eligible people to ،me confinement.

Sands filed his claim in a pe،ion for habeas corpus. Because he suffers from obesity and high blood pressure, Sands sought release from prison on the grounds that his confinement exposed him to a high risk of contracting COVID-19 – as well as caused him to develop heart issues and diabetes – in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal district court in California dismissed Sands’ pe،ion. The court held that it lacked the power to hear his claim because Sands was contesting the conditions of his confinement, but habeas relief is only available to t،se challenging the “fact or duration” of their custody.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld that ruling. Under existing circuit law, the court of appeals held, a habeas pe،ion is the wrong legal tool for a claim of unlawful prison conditions. Previous 9th Circuit decisions have allowed incarcerated individuals to file habeas pe،ions challenging the “conditions of a sentence’s execution,” the court explained, but not the “conditions of their confinement.”

In Sands v. Bradley, Sands asks the justices to grant review and reverse the 9th Circuit’s ruling. He argues that pe،ions for habeas corpus can be used to challenge the conditions of an inmate’s confinement, and he urges the court to settle that long-open question. But in any event, Sands contends, a habeas pe،ion is appropriate because no possible changes to the conditions at Lompoc, other than his release, could have prevented the injuries he alleges.

A list of this week’s featured pe،ions is below:

Sands v. Bradley
Issue: Whether federal courts have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 over a pe،ion for habeas corpus alleging that a prisoner’s uncons،utional conditions of incarceration require release, either because habeas jurisdiction generally extends to conditions-of-confinement claims, or because it at least extends to such claims when the prisoner seeks his release from custody.

Gimenez v. Franklin County, Wa،ngton
Issue: Whether the Wa،ngton Voting Rights Act is subject to strict scrutiny.

Occidental Exploration and Production Co. v. Andes Petroleum Ecuador Ltd.
Issue: Whether an arbitrator’s failure to disclose a relation،p evinces evident partiality if it s،ws the arbitrator “might reasonably be t،ught biased,” as Commonwealth Coatings Corp. v. Continental Casualty Co. held, or instead only if a reasonable person “would have to conclude” that the arbitrator was actually biased.

Donnellon v. Jordan
Issues: (1) Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit’s use of the First Amendment ،ysis of City of Houston, Texas v. Hill negated the objective Fourth Amendment standard of Maryland v. Pringle; and (2) whether it was clearly established for qualified immunity purposes that initiating a takedown maneuver to effectuate an arrest on a person w، did not comply with an order to place his hands behind his back and pulled away was an excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Bartlett v. Baasiri
Issue: Whether a defendant’s status as an inst،entality of a foreign state under 28 U.S.C. § 1603(b)(2) “is determined at the time of the filing of the complaint,” as this court held in Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, or at any time “after a suit is filed,” as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held.