Lawyers argue Allegheny County unlawfully jails probationers in federal suit | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Lawyers argue Allegheny County unlawfully jails probationers in federal suit

click to enlarge Lawyers argue Allegheny County unlawfully jails probationers in federal suit
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Allegheny County Jail

Tate Stanford, 23, has been held at the Allegheny County Jail since his September 2022 arrest for an alleged probation violation, even though a hearing officer and a judge thought it would be safe to release him.

The District Attorney’s office dropped all charges against him two weeks ago, but Stanford remains incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail due to a probation detainer issued by Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani.

During a federal court hearing on Tuesday, lawyers argued that judges’ use of probation detainers in Allegheny County violates Tate’s constitutional rights and those of others accused of breaking probation terms in “a scheme of arbitrary mandatory detention.”  They asked U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan to issue an injunction prohibiting the use of probation detainers in Allegheny County without procedural safeguards to protect due process rights. Probation detainers are judicial orders requiring pretrial incarceration until the issuing judge lifts the order.

Stanford is one of six plaintiffs in the
federal class action lawsuit brought by public interest law firms the Abolitionist Law Center and Civil Rights Corps challenging what attorney Sumayya Saleh called Allegheny County’s “rampant use” of detainers.

“To date, the six named plaintiffs have spent a combined total of 1485 days incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, awaiting a probation violation hearing,” writes the Abolitionist Law Center in a press release. “All plaintiffs are or were incarcerated due to probation detainers–orders issued by judges requiring pretrial incarceration. As a result of these detainers, plaintiffs were trapped at the jail, even though all had bail set that they could have afforded. But for the detainer, they could have been released within 24 hours of arrest.”

The suit, filed in October 2022, names as defendants Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos, a criminal division administrative judge; Frank Scherer, the county’s director of adult probation; Common Pleas Judges Anthony M. Mariani and Kelly E. Bigley; Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper; and probation hearing officers Charlene Christmas, Robert O’Brien, Stephen Esswein and Renawn Harris.

Testimony at Tuesday’s hearing focused on Allegheny County’s administration of Gagnon I hearings, the first of two hearings required for an alleged violation of probation.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that in Allegheny County, Gagnon I hearings are typically short and perfunctory and that when someone has a detainer lodged against them, the hearing officers responsible for conducting the proceedings do not make individualized assessments of each person’s case.

Stanford testified that he had no advance notice of his Gagnon I hearing, which was held at the jail via video conference, and that his public defender turned off their video feed so early in the preceding that Stanford doesn’t remember their gender or their name. Tate testified yesterday that the hearing officer said he didn’t think Tate needed to be held at the jail, but that the officer would not interfere with Mariani’s order.

Autumn Redcross, the founding director of the Abolitionist Law Center’s Court Watch program, testified that in her experience of observing more than 100 Gagnon I hearings she repeatedly heard hearing officers say during the proceedings that if the person on probation was under the supervision of Bigley or Mariani, they could not lift their detainer.

“It is institutional knowledge that Mariani doesn’t want hearing officers lifting detainers,” Saleh said, arguing that Mariani and Bigley have a “blanket no-lift policy for detainers,” and citing statistics that hearing officers recommend lifting Mariani’s detainers in 6% of Gagnon proceedings and Bigley’s in 3.7%.

Lawyers for the defense argued that those statistics show there is not a no-lift policy and asked Ranjan to deny the injunction request.

“There appears to be a don’t-automatically-lift-my-detainer preference,” said Corrie Woods, who represents Mariani, calling 6% and 3.7% “large percentages” of cases where officers recommend lifting a detainer.

Attorney Michael Daly, representing Rangos, Bigley, and the probation officers, argued that most individuals accused of breaking their probation in Allegheny County are not incarcerated, which he said shows that the county judicial system does make individualized assessments and uses incarceration as a last resort.

Saleh rebutted that other probationers’ experiences are not relevant to the case and noted that the defense did not refute the plaintiffs’ evidence of what’s happening in most Gagnon I hearings.

Both sides are expected to file post-hearing briefs, and Ranjan is not expected to rule on the requested injunction for several weeks.

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