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‘Wholly indefensible system’ owes nothing to victims

August 9, 2017

The former Clark County Drug Treatment Court was “a wholly indefensible system” whose participants were sent to jail, sometimes for months, in a way that a federal judge wrote was “random, inconsistent, happenstance, arbitrary, capricious, negligent and unjust.”

But the judge who made these findings determined in the same opinion that the plaintiffs who suffered through this could take nothing in monetary damages in their civil rights complaint.

“Obviously, we think it’s manifestly unjust, but we respect the court’s decision,” said Brennan Soergel, a partner at the Bolus Law Firm in Louisville, Kentucky. Soergel was part of the legal team that represented the 16 plaintiffs who remained in a suit against state actors who had been involved in the southern Indiana drug court.

Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled against those plaintiffs July 27, granting summary judgment to the remaining state defendants. Her opinion expressed sympathy for the people who were wrongly jailed, calling the system “wholly indefensible.” But she ultimately sided with the state, citing to 223-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case law to hold that sovereign immunity preempted the plaintiffs’ claims.

Soergel said no decision has been made about whether the decision will be appealed, but he said plaintiffs were considering their options.

Abuses in the Clark County Drug Treatment Court were so bad that the program was suspended and the former judge who led it, Jerry Jacobi, agreed to never again seek judicial office. More than 60 people whose charges were diverted to drug court were detained more than 72 hours without due process. On average, those participants spent 52 days behind bars without being advised of their right to counsel and in some cases before ever seeing a judge.

The drug court abuses made international headlines in 2014 when prosecutors discovered that lead plaintiff Destiny Hoffman, then 34, had been jailed 154 days after being sentenced to 48 hours’ detention for submitting a diluted drug screen. Hoffman and others sued Jacobi and other officials responsible for the drug court program.

Barker ruled in favor of the state defendants on the plaintiffs’ complaints that these conditions were violations of their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights. She granted summary judgment on 20 of 21 plaintiffs’ claims. The 42-page order allows only one claim to proceed — plaintiff Jesse Hash’s complaint against Sheriff Danny Rodden alleging wrongful detention may go forward because Hash was not a participant in the drug court program.

Barker had previously dismissed claims for declaratory and injunctive relief against Jacobi due to his resignation from office, as well as other claims against the state actors in their official capacities that became moot when the drug court ceased operations.

Barker ruled July 27 in the case involving the drug court employees that because Jacobi was removed from office and the drug court program suspended, plaintiffs who were wrongly jailed have no claim, despite showing their constitutional rights were violated.

“(W)e acknowledge Plaintiffs’ pervasive, palpable frustration in waging this legal assault, which feeling arises out of their inability to overcome the central obstacle to their success, that is, the fact that the primary tortfeasor responsible for their constitutional deprivations was Clark Circuit Court Judge Jerome Jacobi acting in his role as the presiding judge of the Drug Treatment Court,” Barker wrote in ruling against the plaintiffs in Hoffman, et al. v. Jacobi, et al., 4:14-cv-00012.

“In the course of our analysis and rulings on the various motions advanced in this litigation, we have found that the official-capacity claims against Judge Jacobi and his staff cannot support an award of monetary damages to Plaintiffs because those claims actually are suits against the State of Indiana. Likewise, we have held that neither Judge Jacobi’s staff, the Clark County Board of Commissioners, nor the Clark County Sheriff can be held liable for the policies, procedures, and actions taken and implemented by Judge Jacobi.

“We are far from unsympathetic to the situations in which Plaintiffs found themselves. Their detentions were in very many instances excessive, arbitrary, unwarranted and unjust. Nonetheless, our decisions here are grounded in the law’s deep-rooted respect for the sovereignty of the States and the independence of the judiciary. These doctrines of immunity predate even our Constitution and have been enjoyed by sovereigns and judges for centuries as safeguards against the erosion of certain governmental powers and the capacity of such institutions to perform the duties entrusted to them ... even when claims establish a violation of the Constitution.

“Ordinarily, (plaintiffs) would not be entirely without a remedy,” Barker wrote. ... Here, however, such remedies are not available because, following the reports of due process violations to the Indiana Judicial Center, the (Drug Treatment Court) was decertified, the remaining participants were allowed to complete the Program under the guidance of Chief Judge (Vicki) Carmichael, Judge Jacobi was removed from office ... and the operations of the problem-solving court officially ended in June 2015.”

Clark County’s drug court was later re-established under Carmichael’s administration.•

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