Judge denies inmate request for release over COVID-19 risk

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An inmate facing drug and weapons charges who claims he is at a higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus has been denied his request to be released to home detention for his health.

Marcus Dillard had petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana for his release from the Henderson County Detention Center in Henderson, Kentucky, but District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt denied the motion Tuesday.

In his motion, Dillard – who has agreed to plead guilty to possession with intent to distribute heroin and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime – told the court he has asthma and high blood pressure. But, Pratt noted, the 34-year-old man also recently told a probation officer that he was “in good health with no serious ailments or surgeries in life.”

His plan, Dillard said, was to reside on home incarceration with his wife and children in Indianapolis.

Dillard had also agreed to a 97-month sentence and was scheduled for a March 25 sentencing before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all federal courthouses in Indiana. When he had previously appeared before a magistrate judge in November 2019, the judge had determined that Dillard’s prior criminal history and history of violence and parole violations, among other factors, weighed against his pretrial release.

“The Government opposes Dillard’s release under any circumstances,” Pratt wrote in her order denying Dillard’s emergency motion for release. “… They note Dillard has a criminal history which includes multiple convictions for resisting arrest.

“In one instance, he resisted arrest by kicking and punching an assisting K9 unit,” she wrote. “In another instance, he fled from law enforcement in a vehicle and collided with another vehicle while doing so. In the instant offense, while being placed under arrest, Dillard was involved in an altercation with arresting officers that resulted in one of the arresting officers having his eyeglasses broken.”

Additionally, Pratt said, the United States Probation Office classifies Dillard as a Category 4 risk, meaning he is a moderate-high risk for release. Thus, the probation officer has recommended his continued detention.

“As asserted by the Government, Henderson County Detention Center has implemented aggressive measures to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” the judge wrote Tuesday in United States of America v. Marcus Dillard, 1:19-00362. https://ecf.insd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?12019cr0362-40 “Dillard is 34 years old and, to date, hypertension has not been identified as one of the conditions that places an individual in a higher risk category.

“… The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the availability of conditions to mitigate the risk to the community and the resources of the United States Probation Office are presently limited,” Pratt concluded. “The Court finds no combination of conditions exist that will ensure the safety of the community if Dillard is released, she ruled in denying the motion.

Like the Henderson County Detention Center, prison and jail officials on the state and local level have taken steps to reduce inmates’ risk of exposure to the virus. The Indiana Department of Correction has suspended all in-person visitation and volunteer services, while local law enforcement have been evaluating early release options after leaders of all three branches of state government urged them do so.

Before state leaders took that action, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana had asked the Indiana Supreme Court to get involved, filing a petition for the justices to order the release of eligible inmates. Chief Justice Loretta Rush has already signed her name to a letter from the leaders of all three branches of state government calling on jails and prisons to release low-risk offenders.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, however, opposes the ACLU’s petition, arguing in a court filing that the Supreme Court does not have authority over the DOC. The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and Indiana Sheriff’s Association also oppose judicial intervention, while Indiana Public Defender Amy Karozos and the Indiana Public Defender Council are supporting the ACLU.

So far, six DOC inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, but none have required hospitalization.

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