Man Sues After Avoiding 5 Years of Prison Due to Sentencing Error

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By William Peacock, Esq. on June 03, 2013 4:40 PM

Jesse Engebretson pled guilty to four counts of sexual assault in 1993. Because he had also been convicted of a felony burglary within five years of committing the sexual assaults, he was classified as a persistent felony offender by the court under Montana law.

That classification entitled him to an extra thirty years in prison after his four concurrent 20-year terms for the four sexual assaults. The judge suspended the sentence, however, and instead sentenced him to thirty-years probation.

Ten years later, he was released for good behavior. A few years after that, he filed a habeas petition with the Montana Supreme Court, arguing that his 30-years probation was illegal because he was required by law to serve five years of that sentence before any probation could be ordered.

He saved five years in prison and then complained about it? Yep. And it worked.

The lower court, on remand, discharged his entire thirty-year sentence, and made no mention of a persistent felony offender classification.

What does a man that just saved five years of prison and twenty-five years of probation do? He sued the warden and head of the Montana Department of Corrections for releasing him on an "illegal" probationary sentence.

Yeah. He's suing because he was released from prison five years early.

While noting that "we think these allegations lack merit," the Ninth Circuit still heard the case, as pro se litigants in the pleading stage are given a lot of leeway. Plus if they can show a violation of a constitutional right under § 1983, (probation is a restriction on freedom and the sentence was technically illegal) nominal damages are possible.

However, the Ninth Circuit joined their sister circuits (citing the Second, Third, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits) in holding that prison officials, like the warden and head of the DOC here, are absolutely immune from § 1983 liability when they simply enforce a facially valid court order.

Why? It's simple. If prison officials had to question every single judicial order that they received, the system would collapse. They would constantly fear litigation and be forced to question every sentence handed down. In addition, immunity for those performing functions necessary to the judicial process is grounded both in the common law and in recent SCOTUS case law.

Note that the grant of absolute immunity only applies to the "fact of a prisoner's incarceration pursuant to a facially valid court order." The court left the question of immunity for officials acting beyond their authority, or engaging in conduct not prescribed by an order, for another day.

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