Thakker v. Doll

451 F.Supp. 3d 358 (2020)
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The Petitioners were a group of individuals being held in civil detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at three locations: the York County Prison, the Clinton County Correctional Facility, and the Pike County Correctional facility, while awaiting the final disposition of their immigration cases. With the rapid and expansive spread of the novel coronavirus throughout Pennsylvania, many regions were under stay-at-home orders, and citizens were urged to practice social distancing to combat the spread of the deadly virus. Each Petitioner suffered from underlying medical condition[s] and was therefore at risk of serious injury or death if exposed to Covid-19.

Petitioner Thakker, a 65-year-old man, who had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and kidney failure, was suffering from symptoms similar to those of Covid-19. Several other Petitioners suffered from various other chronic medical conditions including, diabetes, heart problems, respiratory problems, chronic pain, liver disease, anemia, and being immunocompromised. Further, several of the Petitioners have also reported symptoms similar to those of Covid-19. Notably, none of these individuals have been quarantined, isolated or treated. The Petitioners were detained in conditions that did not allow them to socially distance.

The Petitioners filed for writ of habeas corpus and moved for temporary restraining order to compel their immediate release.

On the issue of whether the Petitioners have standing despite having not alleged an injury in fact, the court stated that the Petitioners do in fact have standing, because of a tragic event is not a necessary precursor for a remedy for unsafe conditions. Relying on Helling v. McKinney, the court reasoned that it would be strange to deny an injunction to inmates who plainly proved a life-threatening condition in their prison on the basis that they had not yet been injured.

On the issue of whether the Petitioners can challenge their conditions of confinement through a habeas petition, the court held that the Petitioners had appropriately invoked the court’s jurisdiction through a petition for writ of habeas corpus. The court justified this decision on the grounds that federal courts have condoned conditions of confinement challenges through habeas.

The court granted the requested temporary restraining order, compelling the Petitioners’ immediate release from their respective correctional facilities. The court reasoned that the Petitioners’ claim was rooted in imminent, irreparable harm, with the harm being the global pandemic spreading prolifically and to which they are particularly vulnerable given their age and underlying medical conditions. The court emphasized that the detention conditions are such that the Petitioners are unable to keep socially distant and are also unable to keep the facilities sufficiently clean—these factors, along with the Petitioners’ medical conditions constitute heightened risk of harm to them. The court further stresses that detention center outbreaks will overwhelm local hospital symptoms, restricting the health resources available for the people in the community surrounding the detention centers.

On the issue of whether the Petitioners’ continued incarceration in ICE detention facilities exposes them to serious Covid-related risks associated that violate their due process rights, the court held that the Petitioners were likely to succeed on the merits of their due process claim. The court reasoned that there was no rational relationship between the legitimate government objective, which was preventing Petitioners from absconding and ensuring they appear at future immigration proceedings, and keeping Petitioners detained in unsanitary, tightly-packed conditions. The court further emphasized that ICE has a plethora of means aside from detention at their disposal to monitor detainees, and therefore there was no rational basis for risk imposed by physical detention in the Petitioners’ circumstances. Moreover, the court found that the public interest favors the Petitioners’ release, as efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19 are in the public’s best interest.

“Public health officials now acknowledge that there is little that can be done to stop the spread of Covid-19 absent effective quarantines and social distancing procedures. But Petitioners are unable to keep socially distant while detained by ICE and cannot keep the detention facilities sufficiently clean to combat the spread of the virus. Based upon the nature of the virus, the allegations of current conditions in the prisons, and Petitioners’ specifically medical concerns, detailed below, we therefore find that Petitioners face a very real risk of serious, lasting illness or death. There can be no injury more irreparable.” Page 6.

“Petitioners have shown that adequate measures are not in place and cannot be taken to protect them from Covid-19 in the detention facilities, and that catastrophic results may ensure, both to Petitioners and to the communities surrounding the Facilities. We therefore find that the likely irreparable injury to Petitioners, as high-risk individuals, satisfies the first element of our TRO [Temporary Restraining Order] analysis.” Page 9.

“Considering the Facility conditions previously discussed, we can see no rational relationship between a legitimate government objective and keeping Petitioners detained in unsanitary, tightly-packed environments—doing so would constitute a punishment to Petitioners. Despite the Respondents’ protests to the contrary, we need to find that the Facilities had the “express intent” to punish Petitioners with the conditions alleged.” Page 10.

“We note that ICE has a plethora of means other than physical detention at their disposal by which they may monitor civil detainees and ensure that they are present at removal proceedings, including remote monitoring and routine check-ins. Physical detention itself will place a burden on community healthcare systems and will needlessly endanger Petitioners, prison employees, and the greater community. We cannot see the rational basis of such a risk.” Page 10.