Dianthe Martinez-Brooks v. Attorney General Merrick Garland, et al.

CASE SUMMARY

NCLA seeks to obtain declaratory relief and to halt DOJ’s effort to disregard prior court decisions on prison alternatives for nonviolent and medically vulnerable people.

NCLA represents Dianthe Martinez-Brooks, a 52-year-old nonviolent first-time offender currently serving a federal prison term on home confinement. BOP released her from prison after determining that she posed no threat to the public but was at serious risk of severe illness or death should she contract Covid-19 in prison—in accordance with Attorney General William Barr’s “home confinement” memorandum.

According to current statute, BOP must always evaluate use of home confinement as “pre-release custody” for those inmates in the last six months of their sentence. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress in March 2020 directed BOP to use home confinement for medically vulnerable people. Neither the relevant statute nor the CARES Act’s applicable section deprives BOP of its discretion to make an initial placement outside of a prison setting. Likewise, neither the relevant statute nor the CARES Act requires BOP to revoke home confinement for medically vulnerable people after six months.

Nevertheless, in January, BOP’s General Counsel directed the agency to order the return of more than 4,000 inmates once the declared Covid-19 emergency has ended, regardless of the nature of their offenses or their conduct while on home confinement. NCLA believes the agency has wrongly interpreted an obligation to release people to home confinement when they near the end of their sentences as a limit on how long anyone can be released to home confinement, no matter why they were released initially.

This interpretation contradicts several federal court decisions, including one from the Third Circuit, the pertinent jurisdiction in this case, which have held that this statute does not preclude having a defendant serve a much longer portion of her term on home confinement. To the contrary, the Third Circuit specifically stated that BOP is obligated to evaluate each individual’s circumstances and make a determination as to where she should serve the entirety of her sentence.

NCLA argues that the current statute vests BOP with sufficient discretion to allow Ms. Martinez-Brooks to serve the remainder of her sentence on home confinement.

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CASE STATUS: Active

CASE START DATE: May 17, 2021

DECIDING COURT: U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark Vicinage

ORIGINAL COURT: U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark Vicinage

CASE DOCUMENTS

December 21, 2021 | Memorandum Opinion for the Attorney General
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November 12, 2021 | Plaintiff’s Sur-Reply in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss
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November 8, 2021 | Defendants' Reply Brief in Support of Their Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1)
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October 25, 2021 | Plaintiff’s Response in Opposition to Defendant's’ Motion to Dismiss
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September 7, 2021 | Defendants' Brief in Support of Their Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1)
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May 17, 2021 | Complaint for Declaratory Judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark Vicinage
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PRESS RELEASES

December 22, 2021 | In Reversal After NCLA Suit, DOJ to Allow Prisoners Moved to Home Confinement for Covid to Stay

Washington, DC (December 22, 2021) – The New Civil Liberties Alliance commends Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice (DOJ) for reversing course on the idea of automatically returning prisoners put on home confinement to prison once the pandemic ends. Under an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released yesterday, prisoners released to home confinement pursuant to 2020’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will not automatically return to prison post-pandemic and will be eligible to remain at home instead.

NCLA represents Dianthe Martinez-Brooks, a 52-year-old nonviolent first-time offender who has been serving her federal prison term on home confinement during Covid. In May 2021, NCLA and Ms. Martinez-Brooks filed suit against DOJ, seeking declaratory relief against an earlier OLC opinion, which interpreted federal law to strip the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) of its statutorily granted discretion to determine if and when individuals released under the CARES Act to home confinement could be returned to prison. NCLA argues that both proper interpretation of the CARES Act and binding precedent conflict with DOJ’s earlier position. As recently as November, DOJ was telling the federal court in the Martinez-Brooks case that individuals like her must automatically be returned to prison at the end of the CARES Act’s covered emergency period, without the benefit of BOP’s Congressionally authorized discretion being applied to her individual circumstances.

The CARES Act provision which allows BOP to lengthen the “pre-release custody” period during the pandemic is intended to protect medically vulnerable people like Ms. Martinez-Brooks from the significant risk of illness or death posed by the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings like prisons. Home confinement in accordance with the CARES Act also sought to reduce recidivism while protecting public safety. Thus far, the CARES Act home confinement provision has been a success. Of the approximately 35,277 people released from prison since late March 2020, 4,879 are currently on home confinement under the CARES Act authority. As of April 2021, fewer than 200 individuals had violated the terms of their release and less than a handful were arrested for new crimes.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Attorney General Garland reiterated that “those who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement … should be given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society, … not unnecessarily returned to prison.” In the 18 months since Ms. Martinez-Brooks was placed in home confinement, she has fully complied with the terms of her release. NCLA looks forward to working with DOJ to ensure that Ms. Martinez-Brooks, who has demonstrated an exemplary record following her release, is able to serve the remainder of her sentence on home confinement.

NCLA released the following statements:

“The CARES Act home confinement provision has been a resounding success, and NCLA is happy to see that its success will not be diminished by the threat of future confinement for our client and other model inmates in her situation. This new OLC opinion will permit thousands of individuals, like Ms. Martinez-Brooks, to remain on home confinement at the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons, as Congress instructed.”
Kara Rollins, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

“I am ecstatic that AG Garland has stated, as we believed, that the Bureau of Prisons has the authority to keep individuals home beyond the COVID-19 emergency. For myself, and the many others released during this pandemic, the fear of returning has plagued us all and hindered our ability to plan long term. This is an awesome first step! However, given my experience with BOP, I respectfully ask the Department of Justice to oversee BOP as it develops the revised criteria for the individuals out on home confinement under the CARES Act to ensure the only basis on which an individual is sent back to prison would be if they seriously violate their terms of release. No one should be returned just because of how much time they have left on their sentence, or any other similar factor.”
Dianthe Martinez-Brooks, Plaintiff, Martinez-Brooks v. Attorney General Merrick Garland, et al.

For more information visit the case page here.

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

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October 26, 2021 | NCLA Refutes BOP’s Attempt to Dismiss Home Confinement Lawsuit for Medically Vulnerable Inmate

Washington, DC (October 26, 2021) – The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have declared plans to order medically vulnerable people out of home confinement and back to prison as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic abates. In doing so, these agencies are ignoring statements from Congress, the plain language of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Post-sentence Administration statutes. The New Civil Liberties Alliance has filed a response on behalf of client Dianthe Martinez-Brooks to the government’s motion to dismiss our lawsuit, Martinez-Brooks v. Garland, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

NCLA represents Ms. Martinez-Brooks, a 52-year-old nonviolent, first-time offender who has been serving her federal prison term on home confinement since June 2020. The CARES Act home confinement provision is intended to protect medically vulnerable people like Ms. Martinez-Brooks from the significant risk of illness or death posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in congregate settings like prisons. The provision has been a resounding success for thousands of nonviolent, medically vulnerable inmates. Of the approximately 33,300 people released since the CARES Act’s passage, only 151 individuals violated the terms of their release, and only three were arrested for new crimes.

On January 15, 2021, the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued an opinion to BOP’s General Counsel, holding that BOP has unlimited discretion to return individuals released under the CARES Act to prison from home confinement at any time. More problematically, it also opined that once the CARES Act period “expires” BOP must return every person to prison who has served more than six months on home confinement.

DOJ insists it has no choice but to reincarcerate people, despite the success of home confinement placements under the CARES Act. So, unless the court accepts NCLA’s argument, Ms. Martinez-Brooks will be forced to return to prison, even though imprisoning her again serves no legitimate purpose and the CARES Act does not provide for her re-incarceration.

Ms. Martinez-Brooks is challenging the OLC Opinion under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The only way to grant her the relief she seeks—i.e., a court decision setting aside the OLC Opinion—is through court review of the OLC Opinion under the APA. NCLA argues that the current statute vests BOP with sufficient discretion to allow Ms. Martinez-Brooks to serve the remainder of her sentence on home confinement and therefore, the government’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction should be denied.

NCLA released the following statement:

“It is disappointing to see DOJ and BOP continue to uphold their erroneous reading of the CARES Act’s home confinement provision. Home confinement under the CARES Act has been incredibly successful at protecting nonviolent, medically vulnerable inmates during the pandemic while also achieving Congress’s goals to reduce recidivism and ensure public safety. But if the OLC Opinion’s misreading of the statute is allowed to stand, thousands will be automatically returned to prison. This would be a profoundly unfair consequence for those like Ms. Martinez-Brooks who have fully complied with the CARES Act and the terms of their home confinement.”
— Kara Rollins, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

For more information visit the case page here.

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

Download the full document

May 18, 2021 | NCLA Tells Court Bureau of Prisons May Keep Inmates on Home Confinement Post-Covid

Washington, DC (May 18, 2021) – The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) cannot overrule Congress and ignore decisions of the courts of appeals, argues the New Civil Liberties Alliance in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. NCLA, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group, seeks to obtain declaratory relief and to halt DOJ’s effort to disregard prior court decisions on prison alternatives for nonviolent and medically vulnerable people.

NCLA represents Dianthe Martinez-Brooks, a 52-year-old nonviolent first-time offender currently serving a federal prison term on home confinement. BOP released her from prison after determining that she posed no threat to the public but was at serious risk of severe illness or death should she contract Covid-19 in prison—in accordance with Attorney General William Barr’s “home confinement” memorandum.

According to current statute, BOP must always evaluate use of home confinement as “pre-release custody” for those inmates in the last six months of their sentence. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress in March 2020 directed BOP to use home confinement for medically vulnerable people. Neither the relevant statute nor the CARES Act’s applicable section deprives BOP of its discretion to make an initial placement outside of a prison setting. Likewise, neither the relevant statute nor the CARES Act requires BOP to revoke home confinement for medically vulnerable people after six months.

Nevertheless, in January, BOP’s General Counsel directed the agency to order the return of more than 4,000 inmates once the declared Covid-19 emergency has ended, regardless of the nature of their offenses or their conduct while on home confinement. NCLA believes the agency has wrongly interpreted an obligation to release people to home confinement when they near the end of their sentences as a limit on how long anyone can be released to home confinement, no matter why they were released initially.

This interpretation contradicts several federal court decisions, including one from the Third Circuit, the pertinent jurisdiction in this case, which have held that this statute does not preclude having a defendant serve a much longer portion of her term on home confinement. To the contrary, the Third Circuit specifically stated that BOP is obligated to evaluate each individual’s circumstances and make a determination as to where she should serve the entirety of her sentence.

NCLA argues that the current statute vests BOP with sufficient discretion to allow Ms. Martinez-Brooks to serve the remainder of her sentence on home confinement. Since her transfer, Ms. Martinez-Brooks has excelled at returning to the community. In addition to not being legally required, ordering her back to prison would be unnecessary and cruel. NCLA is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment concluding that the CARES Act and current law allow—albeit do not require—BOP to keep Ms. Martinez-Brooks out of prison for the remainder of her sentence.

NCLA released the following statements:

“Part of BOP’s mission is to ensure that people who return home from prison reintegrate into their communities. But BOP is poised to force thousands of people who have proven that they are not a danger to the community back to prison, contrary to Congressional directives and binding decisions of the courts.”
Caleb Kruckenberg, NCLA Litigation Counsel

“Ms. Martinez-Brooks was a model prisoner and her conduct for ten months, while on home confinement, has likewise been impeccable. Despite this, BOP wants to send her back to prison to finish her sentence. Although BOP claims that this is required by law, in actuality, the pertinent statutes and case law establish precisely the opposite: that Ms. Martinez-Brooks is entitled to an individualized assessment of her circumstances, with the possibility of serving the remainder of her sentence on home confinement.”
— Jenin Younes, NCLA Litigation Counsel

For more information about this case visit here.

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

Download the full document

OPINION

MEDIA MENTIONS