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COA: Probation officers protected under quasi-judicial immunity

March 19, 2019

An inmate ordered to serve the reminder of his sentence after violating his probation lost his argument against several probation officers involved in his case when the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the officers were protected under quasi-judicial immunity.

After Randy Thornton pled guilty to Class C felony possession of cocaine, he was ordered to begin his two-year probation on Aug. 6, 2007. The expected expiration date was set for Aug. 6, 2009. However, in February 2008, Thornton was sentenced an additional three years for an unrelated case under Cause 28198.

Probation officer Eric Lee informed the sentencing court under the initial cause about the new sentence, noting that Thornton’s probation would resume under the initial cause once the executed portion was completed. Lee’s supervisor, Dianna Johnson, approved and signed the memo, but no action was taken on it by the sentencing court.

Then in August 2010, additional probation officers Matthew Pietrzak and Stephanie Buttz filed and reviewed a notice of probation violation on Thornton, informing the sentencing court that he had been arrested and charged with a new offense earlier that month. They noted that Thornton’s probation was additionally paused while he served time for his conviction in Cause 28198.

The sentencing court later found Thornton had violated his probation, despite his contention that the 2010 arrest did not violate the terms of his probation because it had ended in August 2009. He was then ordered to serve the remainder of his previously suspended sentence.

However, a split Indiana Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of his claims, finding that his complaint had stated a claim for relief under section 1983 because the complaint alleged that Pietrzak, Buttz, Lee, and Johnson had taken actions “which constituted ‘unconstitutional deprivations of liberty and violations of due process.’”

On remand, the trial court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment on the grounds that they did not deprive Thornton of his constitutional rights and that they were immune from liability under section 1983 as quasi-judicial officers.

Thornton appealed in Randy L. Thornton v. Matthew Pietrzak, Stephanie Buttz, Eric Lee, and Dianna Johnson, 18A-PL-1356, specifically asserting they were not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because they exceeded the scope of their authority as probation officers by failing to maintain accurate records and providing the sentencing court in Cause 81612 with knowingly false information.

He also asserted that because the sentencing court vacated his probation violation, the officers were not acting in furtherance of a valid court order when they filed the probation violation in August 2010.

“However, the sentencing court, in vacating the probation violation, did not find that Appellees acted in violation of the original sentencing order or that they exceeded their statutory authority in filing the notice of probation violation,” Judge James S. Kirsch wrote.  

“The sentencing court, instead, found that it was unclear whether Thornton’s probation was tolled when he served his sentence in Cause 28198 and that there was no caselaw on the issue. Because of this ambiguity, Appellees did not knowingly file a false probation violation and keep inaccurate records regarding the status of Thornton’s probation.

“To the contrary, they followed their statutory duty to notify the court when a violation of a condition of probation occurred pursuant to the original sentencing order in Cause 81612 and their belief that Thornton was still on probation at the time he committed new offenses because his probation had been tolled when he served an executed sentence in an unrelated case,” Kirsch continued.

The appellate court thus found that in filing the notice of probation violation, the officers were performing duties “considered an arm of the judicial officer who is immune” and therefore entitled to quasi-judicial immunity.

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