Mastagni Law Firm and Majority Leader Torrico Thwart Sacramento County’s Unlawful Early Release of County Inmates

Posted on Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 12:00PM
Posted by David P. Mastagni Dawniell A. Zavala

On February 10, 2010, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Loren E. McMaster issued a temporary restraining order halting the early release of county inmates by the Sheriff’s Department under California Penal Code section 4019. David P. Mastagni represented the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (SCDSA) in the action. The decision in this case has paved the way for other California law enforcement agencies to attack local governments’ dubious plans to release inmates early to save money, in violation of the California Constitution and at tremendous risk to public safety.

Penal Code section 4019, which provides a formula by which prisoners may be released early based on sentencing credits, was amended last year in response to a federal court order that California reduce its state prison population. At issue in this case was whether the statute applies to county inmates as well as inmates housed in California state prisons.

Like many other counties statewide, Sacramento County began applying the new section 4019 time credits to inmates housed in its jail facilities, resulting in the early release of over 200 inmates on January 25, 2010. Within days, a newly-released inmate was arrested for attempted rape at a Sacramento homeless shelter.

The SCDSA, represented by David P. Mastagni, filed an application for a TRO, asserting the County’s interpretation of section 4019 defied the legislative intent behind the amendments to section 4019, directly conflicted with the California Constitution, and posed an immediate threat of irreparable harm to SCDSA members and the public generally.

Early Release of Inmates Based on Misapplication of Statute

County attorneys claimed in court that the law was ambiguous and appeared to call for the early release of County inmates as well as state prisoners. The County also argued the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association did not have standing to bring the suit because no deputies had been injured by the early release, prompting Judge McMaster to ask, “We have to wait ‘til somebody gets hurt?”

The County argued for early release of its inmates despite the fact early release violates key provisions of the California Constitution known as the 2008 Victim’s Bill of Rights, or “Marsy’s Law.” Marsy’s Law requires crime victims to receive advance notification that the perpetrator of an offense against them is set to be released early, and be given an opportunity to be heard on the issue of early release.

Judge Finds Early Releases and Deputy Layoffs a “Recipe for Disaster”

Judge McMaster sided with the SCDSA on all issues presented. First, the judge found the deputies had standing to request the TRO because “more inmates are being released at the same time that the Sheriff’s Office has lost over 120 deputies due to layoff . . . put[ting] the deputies in the field more at risk than they would be without the early release.” He also held the County’s erroneous application of section 4019 directly conflicted with the California Constitution, and emphasized deputies – who are required to arrange and oversee the inmate releases – cannot enforce an unconstitutional law.

Central to the court’s decision to grant the TRO was the declaration of State Assembly Majority Leader and Attorney General candidate Alberto Torrico. Mr. Torrico served on the legislative panel which drafted the amendment to section 4019. In his declaration, Mr. Torrico stated lawmakers never intended for section 4019 to apply to County inmates and that he would introduce emergency legislation to clarify the statute.

Second, McMaster agreed with Torrico and the SCDSA, holding the weight of the evidence proved the amendments to section 4019 permitting the premature release of inmates applied only to convicts in state prisons, and not to those in county jails and detention facilities.

Finally, Judge McMaster ruled the SCDSA had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits of an injunction in its lawsuit against the County’s early release program, because “public safety is compromised by releasing county jail inmates into [the] community when they have not completed their sentence.” McMaster stressed that “releasing inmates early by the application of a law intended only for those in the state prison population at the same time that deputies in the field are being substantially reduced is a formula for disaster.” He rejected the cost-savings arguments put forward by the County, stating “under the facts before the Court, public safety trumps the public fisc.”

Decision Sets the Stage for Future Battles

The economic climate which motivated Sacramento County to release inmates at the public’s peril remains pervasive throughout the state. Other California counties have applied section 4019 similarly or have expressed an intent to do so. The decision in this case should give counties pause and persuade them to maintain public safety as a paramount consideration even in times of fiscal crisis. All local law enforcement associations should be ready to take on other counties that seek to circumvent the law or apply dubious interpretations to statutory provisions to justify placing the public and law enforcement at risk to save money.

David P. Mastagni is the founding partner of Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen. He represented the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association in this case. Dawniell A. Zavala is an associate attorney at Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen.

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