The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that states may give parole officials absolute immunity from being sued for crimes committed by parolees.
The ruling was a blow to many -- including an increasing number of crime victims -- who would hold parole authorities strictly accountable for releasing dangerous prisoners into society.
It was an important victory for corrections officials and others who, in the interest of criminal rehabilitation, advocate maximum flexibility -- including official immunity -- in making parole decisions.
The desire for that flexibility, a unanimous court ruled yesterday in Martinez vs. California, is a rational and constitutional justification for shielding parole officials from suits.
While only a few states, including California, have enacted absolute immunity laws covering parole officials, most courts in other states extend some form of more limited immunity to them as long as they act within the law. The Supreme Court's decision yesterday sanctions both approaches.
Yesterday's case was brought by George Martinez, the father of a 14-year-old California girl murdered in 1975 by a man paroled five months earlier. Martinez sued California parole authorities for damages, contending that they negligently released the murderer, Richard June-Jordan Thomas, knowing that he was dangerous and inclined to attack young girls.
The California courts threw the case out, however, citing the immunity granted parole officials by that state's legislature. Martinez took his challenge to the immunity statute to the Supreme Court, saying that it deprived him of due process of law by preventing him from suing parole officials.
Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged in yesterday's opinion that the immunity law "may have encouraged members of the parole board to take somewhat greater risks" than they otherwise might have.
"But the basic risk that repeat offenses may occur is always present in any parole system," he said.
The state cannot be held responsible for the murder of Martinez's daughter by a third party, the court said, just because of the actions of parole officials. A decision "that has an imcremental impace on the probability that death will result in any given situation -- such as setting the speed limit at 55 miles per hour instead of 45 -- cannot be characterized as state action depriving a person of life just because it may set in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to the random death of an innocent bystander."
The parole board "was not aware that" Martinez's daughter "faced any special danger," the court said. And her "death is too remote a consequence of the parole officers' action to hold them responsible" under federal civil rights law, as Martinez argued.
That language, though it applies to federal law governing actions by governments, does not bode well for a new class of litigation known as victim's rights suits.Such suits attempt to hold third parties -- private and government -- responsible for the actions of criminals, even though they may have had nothing directly to do with the crime.
The court did, however, stop short of mandating immunity for parole officials, as it has for judges and prosecutors. The decision is left to the states under yesterday's ruling.
In another decision yesterday, a divided court made it easier for the government to deprive someone of American citizenship.
Laurence Terrazas, a Maryland-born citizen of the United States and Mexico, lost his American citizenship in 1970 after signing an oath of allegiance to Mexico in an apparent effort to avoid the military draft in the United States. Though the oath specifically included a renunciation of his U.S. citizenship, Terrazas argued that was not his real intent in signing it.
The State Department moved against him anyway. Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed with Terrazas that the government had to prove his "specific intent" to give up U.S. citizenship in order to take it from him.
More significantly for future cases, however, the court held that the government need only prove intent by "a preponderance of evidence," not by the stricter and more difficult standard of "clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence" that is applied in criminal cases. The court then remanded the case back to the District Court for reconsideration of Terrazas' "intent" in light of yesterday's ruling.
Justice Byron R. White, joined by Justices Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist and Chief Justice Warren Burger, formed the majority in that case.