The New York State Legislature amended the sentencing scheme for violent felons to require that every sentence for a violent felony must be followed by a post-release supervision ("PRS") term. Some judges.however did not pronounce PRS terms during sentencing proceedings As a result, certain inmates entered the custody of the Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") with sentence and commitment orders that did not include PRS terms required by the statute. Instead of bringing the failure to the attention of the sentencing court, DOCS simply added the PRS term administratively.
This policy was challenged in Earley v. Murray, in which the Second Circuit held that policy was unconstitutional and that the administratively added-on PRS terms were a nullity because that term had not be imposed by a judge. The Office of Court Administration of New York took the position that the Second Circuit's decision in Earley was not binding on state court and issued a memorandum to judges expressing this view, but urged courts to pronounce PRS terms going forward until the New York State Court of Appeals had the opportunity to rule on this issue.
The New York courts were inconsistent in adhering to to Earley. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled on the issue in People v. Sparber and Garner v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, holding that New York state law required teh judge to pronounce teh term of PRS orally at sentencing if it was to be included in an inmate's sentence, but did not address whether this rule was also required by the Constitution.
The plaintiffs in Betances v. Fischer were offenders who were subject to mandatory PRS terms and who alleged the DOCS,rather than the sentencing judges, had imposed the PRS terms. They sought compensatory damages for this violation of their constitutional rights. The defendants, state officials of DOCS and the Department of Parole, moved to dismiss, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court denied the motion, and the Second Circuit affirmed, remanding the case to the district court for further proceedings. In its remand, the Second Circuit directed the district court to develop the record as to objective reasonableness of defendants' efforts to relieve the plaintiffs of the burdens of those unlawfully imposed PRS terms after the defendants know it had been ruled that the imposition violated federal law.
On remand, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion to certify the case as a class action, and after the parties had cross-moved for summary judgment, denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity and granted plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment holding the defendants' personally liable.
After the defendants had filed a notice of appeal, but before their brief was filed, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion to deem the appeal frivolous, which would have enabled the district court to retain jurisdiction and proceed with a trial on damages notwithstanding the trial. The defendants' moved for a stay, and the Second Circuit stayed the proceedings in the district court pending the appeal.
The Second Circuit held that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because they were aware of the holding of Earley and had not taking objectively reasonable steps to comply with the case. Indeed, the Court was not sure that the defendants would ever have complied had it not been for the actions of the New York State Court of Appeals.
The decision of the Second Circuit in Betances v. Fischer can be found here.