Friday, October 09, 2009

Parole board chair Rissie Owens personally liable for rights violation

Texas' Board of Pardons and Parole violated the rights of an individual who was required to register as a sex offender as a condition of parole, without so much as a hearing, even though he'd never been convicted of a sex crime, a federal jury found yesterday.

Even more surprising, the jury held Parole Board Chair Rissie Owens personally liable, while Judge Sam Sparks fined the state's attorney for prejudicial comments in court. Reports Mike Ward from the Austin Statesman ("Jury says state officials violated parolees right to hearing," Oct. 9):
An Austin federal jury on Thursday found that two top state parole officials violated the constitutional rights of an ex-convict who was denied a required hearing for 576 days.

Jurors also held Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Rissie Owens liable for $21,250 in damages and awarded Curtis Ray Graham attorney's fees that are expected to top $100,000.

The verdict came after an unusually contentious trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who in August had declared a mistrial in the case and who earlier this week fined an assistant attorney general for disregarding his warnings about making prejudicial comments in front of jurors.

Graham sued the parole board after he was classified as a sex offender even though he was never convicted of a sex crime. He was arrested on aggravated rape charges in the 1980s, and parole officials used that as a basis for classifying him as a sex offender five years after he had been released on parole.

Graham alleged he was never allowed to review evidence against him before the parole board made its decision in December 2007, despite several federal court orders requiring such hearings.

It is rare for ex-convicts in Texas to win such legal challenges in state or federal courts. It is almost unheard of for parole officials to be held liable for official omissions. State parole director Stuart Jenkins, a second defendant in the high-profile case, was not held liable.

At a time when several similar lawsuits are pending against state parole officials, attorneys have argued that a win by Graham could force new hearings in perhaps thousands of parole cases in which offenders were classified as sex offenders without proper hearings. Such a finding can bring more stringent limitations on their freedom.

"This should send a message to the parole board that their arrogance not to change their policy won't work any longer, that constitutional rights matter in how they do their business," said William Habern, a noted parole-law attorney from Riverside who represents Graham.

Owens and her attorneys left the courtroom after the verdict without commenting. Jenkins declined to comment, as did his attorneys.
It's pretty darn rare, and quite astonishing, for parole board chair Rissie Owens to be held personally liable in such a case - that implies that she was acting outside the legal strictures of her official capacity when she violated the plaintiff's rights. Owens' attorneys argued she shouldn't be liable because she was following the advice of TDCJ attorneys, but Sparks didn't care because he'd already ordered hearings in the same case on two different occasions and Owens defied him. Thus TDCJ's legal advice did not shield her from personal liability because they were advising her to ignore an order from the federal court.

That also tells us something about the attitudes of legal counsel at TDCJ, doesn't it? They advised Owens to take a course of action so blatantly unconstitutional and in violation of federal court orders that she came to be held individually liable! Yikes!

With thousands more ex-cons similarly situated, I'm betting the parole board changes its policies ASAP rather than Rissie Owens risking similar verdicts that could potentially rack up millions of dollars if they all came out like this case.

It'll be easy enough to initiate hearings going forward when future inmates are up for parole, but what happens with all those who've already been released and assigned sex offender registration but were never convicted of a sex crime? It seems like those rulings now have to be revisited. What a mountainous logistical and practical mess!

Congrats to attorney Bill Habern and his team on a significant win, and a sound legal ass kicking.


doran said...

Who, pray tell, appointed Owens?

Can you name those TDCJ lawyers who escorted their clients into this mess? They may have future political ambitions.

And Ms. Kim Coogan, the State's attorney who was fined for contempt of court? What was she thinking?

KC said...

Thanks for this article! I have a friend who is sentenced to spend many years in a Texas prison for a very minor crime and I hope that his request for parole will be successful. This article gives me hope, many thanks!

Charlie O said...

It's about about time some of the people who run the system are held accountable for their abuse of it.

It think all involved just assumed that any convicted of a crime in Texas just flat didn't have any constitutional right to due process.

I hope to see more smack downs like this.

Texas Maverick said...

Perhaps we are not delving deeply enough when looking at the system. The ruling that inmate records could not be reviewed came from a prior Atty General's office if I'm not mistaken and the ruling has been allowed to continue. Ms. Coogan is employed by the AG. Rissie says she was following legal counsel's advice (AG office). Where does the buck stop?

Anonymous said...

Amazing! Altho there are someexcellent, thoughtful and fair minded BPP members & staff, there is a God syndrome going on there.
BPP needs to be laundered and hung out to dry the light.

sunray's wench said...

doran ~ Gov Perry appoints BPP members. Need we say more?

TX doesn't actually need to run parole reviews the way it does. Few other states (or countries) hold such hearings in secret, give the inmates no opportunity to meet with the Board members or put their case under interview directly (TDCJ inmates are sometimes interviewed by a parole officer at their unit), or deny such a high number of inmates who the DoC have recommended for release or parole on medical grounds.

Keeping inmates in prison because 3 people who have never met them and spend an average of 45 seconds looking at their case file don't like the crime they committed or think the law is wrong on offering a chance of parole at that time (nature of offense and insufficient time served are the two most common reasons given for denial) is expensive. Your tax dollars are being spent on keeping inmates in prison. Usually, people who throw the term "tax dollars" into the conversation don't want their money spent on inmates.

The alternatives are:
No parole at all, which would very quickly cripple TX financially and put the lives of many more corrections officers and the public at risk.

or a parole system that assumes release will happen, unless an inmate has displayed inappropriate behaviour while incarcerated, or has no support plan in place for their release.

Parole is a very good way of supervising individuals in the community as PART of their sentence. Denying parole and then releasing inmates at full-term removes that option for supervision. They can get out and go/do whatever they please.

VDog said...

Fear and loathing in the USA; Sex Offender laws, the toxic mix of hysteria, ignorance and Old Testament religious fundamentalism. This nation is quickly abandoning nobility and embracing retribution, exchanging freedom for a tenuous and false sense of security. All being lead blindly by politicians pandering to the hysterical and uninformed through the sensationalist media just to get elected? Intriguing, especially since Jesus said: “But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the Day of Judgment than for you.”

Anonymous said...

I have another bone to pick with the BPP. My son should have been released 4 months agao, and we are still waiting to hear something. Sounds like the BPP is still up to it's old antics.

Anonymous said...

BPP needs new legal counsel, eh?

SB said...

Don't you know Rissie Owens is plotting revenge? Judge Sparks had better watch his back.
Guess it was these same attorneys that found a loop hole in the last go-around. To the best of my recollection she was ordered to provide the reason for a set-off but that didn't happen. It seems that Whitmire should be closing loopholes and giving it another shot but I am not a lawyer. Such a step at this time would be a double whammy.

Atticus said...

Grits: Here's hoping you'll stay after BPP with your usual tenacity and fervor. It's just as poorly run as TYC and needs to be held accountable.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope the fate of Rissie Owens becomes Bill Fitzgerald and Kathy Decline!!!!!!!!!!!
Then the parole board and probationers urinalysis rights across the state will be fair and some what better off. Let's see what Judge Xavier Rodriguez of San Antonio's western district does. He is Republican so I bet he tosses the case. I read some of the case it is real sick to think that chief probation was that corrupt. Lets see if justice will prevail.

Hook Em Horns said...

The sneaking...conniving...secret parole boards may be ending!! YAY!!!!

Hook Em Horns said...

Governor + Perry = BARF!!!

paladins4 said...

Altho the TBPP is held liable for violating the rights of this parolee, I wonder if the US Parole Commission can ever be held liable for their right violations, which are a common practice. After spending more than 12 YEARS in prison for a $10,000 Mail Fraud, and serving more than 10 years on parole, on an imposed 20 year sentence, this Federal Agency still refuses to release me from this sentence. However, Mr. Garrido was released early from his sentence due to his remarkable rehabilitation.
In view of this decision in Texas, the vicitms of this monster's actions should pursue a Civil case against the US Parole Commission!

Anonymous said...

It's a great day for all freedom loving peoples. For too long now these miscreants have enjoyed the benefits of serving on state boards while being accountable to no one. Now if we could just get rogue prosecutors and cops held to the same standard.

Porsche said...

Until the state involves restorative justice, rehabilitation, and restitution into TDCJ units and the way parolees are supervised, the system is going to fail. I don't see the logical sense for sending a person to prison for 55 plus years for a crime that they committed when they were 16 years. Punishment is only a small percentage of the equation and when you get management and administrators like Owens and the rest of the Board you are going to have nothing but what we have now. TDCJ and all of its departments need a serious makeover.

mojo said...

Can she sue the TDCJ and the lawyers for mis-advising her?

Anonymous said...

"Can she sue the TDCJ and the lawyers for mis-advising her?"

Probably not.

To rise to the level of actionable malpractice, it has to be more than just advice that turned out to be bad.

Andres Morin III said...

Is Rissie Owens really that bad??.........YES!! She is a Rick Perry political sure smells a lot like Shoda Perkins up in there(BPP).....andy

Anonymous said...

This is a very small ass whipping from what should be a very big ass kickin. Russie Owens and her co-workers (P.o's) violated thousands of ex-offenders legal rights by no affording them the proper attorney instead they were given a bogus attorney who was only at the parole hearing for show and tell. These so called attorneys were paid through the parole board for their services,went against their own clients for pay,reguardless of the parolees rights. SAD TO SAY....those attorneys weren't worth a sack of dog s**t. I think I'll take my sack of dog s**t and plow,I'll find better results.

Anonymous said...

When Ms. Owens was requested at a hearing where an offender threatened her and an entire parole office, she did not bother to show up. Furthermore, she did not even advise the PO or Hearing officer that she had no intention of showing up. She sent a letter to the jail that arrived after the hearing started that it could not be entered into evidence. There was a taped recording of his offender threatening to enter the parole office with an uzi and start shooting parole officers. This offender admitted he said it and that he had people in the community ready to help him carry it out. When the board had the chance to rule on the sustained allegations, they continued this offender on parole. This offender is also deemed such a threat that he is on Active GPS, lives at the work release program at jail, and must be escorted at all times by 2 unarmed parole officers at all times. The board deemed him such a threat they placed these restrictions on him but when he threatens parole staff it is no big deal. Way to support the parole officers who are ensuring your parole conditions are carried out, BPP.

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