Judge Won't Order More COVID-19 Releases From Miami Jail

By Nathan Hale
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Law360 (April 30, 2020, 6:19 PM EDT) -- A Florida federal judge ordered Miami-Dade County to continue court-mandated precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in one of its jails, but declined to order any releases, as she ruled late Tuesday on a group of inmates' request for a preliminary injunction.

Although U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams concluded that the group of inmates had not proved they are entitled to what she called an extraordinary remedy of immediate release for themselves or medically vulnerable inmates awaiting trial, she strongly indicated that she thinks a further reduction is needed at the Metro West Detention Center.

The facility, she noted, had reported zero inmate cases of COVID-19 when the proposed class action was filed on April 5, but saw that climb to 163 as of Tuesday, according to county data.

The court "strongly urges defendants to continue to be guided by the joint conclusion [and recommendation] of the expert doctors who inspected Metro West on April 18, 2020: 'an urgent reduction in the population in this facility and increased screening for COVID-19 infection among the staff and inmates to mitigate the spread of this infection within the community.'"

In their class action complaint, the Metro West inmates claimed the county has violated their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by needlessly exposing them to COVID-19, and they requested the court order compliance with U.S. Centers for Disease and Control & Prevention guidelines as well as the release of a medically vulnerable subclass pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus.

Judge Williams' preliminary injunction order, which will be in effect for at least the next 45 days, largely tracks a temporary restraining order she issued April 7, requiring the county to take certain steps at Metro West, such as implementing social distancing as much as possible and providing inmates with soap and other personal hygiene items.

In addition to continuing those measures, the preliminary injunction also Judge Williams' order that the county report to the court every three days on the number of staff and inmates who have tested positive for or are being quarantined because of COVID-19 and weekly on the facilities' current population.

The county also must submit, within seven days, a proposal outlining its steps to ensure additional social distancing safeguards.

Judge Williams acknowledged the ongoing efforts of various county officials to respond to the unprecedented situation presented by the coronavirus pandemic, but she said "the fact that Metro West, and society as a whole, are facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances 'does not mean, however, that constitutional protections fall by the wayside.'"

The evidence, including a report filed by two doctors who conducted a court-ordered inspection of the facility, presents a disputed record of the county's implementation of the steps required by the temporary restraining order, the order said. The plaintiffs submitted numerous declarations from inmates describing insufficient cleaning supplies and mask distribution, and the court said it cannot rely on corrections officials' assurances that they would have implemented the ordered precautions on their own.

In a key finding, Judge Williams determined that even aside from the steps the county has taken to reduce spread of COVID-19 and the disputes over their implementation, the record can be viewed as showing deliberate indifference on the county's part — a key element to the inmates' Eight Amendment claim.

She cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 1993 decision in Helling v. McKinney , which she said held that "in the context of an Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim, that 'exposure of inmates to a serious, communicable disease' that poses a risk of future harm is a deprivation sufficiently serious to invoke constitutional protections."

She also found that the inmates showed they will suffer irreparable harm without an injunction and that the threatened injury outweighs any administrative burden on the county from an injunction, and she said the measures required by the injunction are in the public interest.

Judge Williams, however, ruled against the inmates' request for immediate release, agreeing with the county that they have not shown a likelihood of success because the Eleventh Circuit has held that "relief from an Eighth Amendment violation does not include release from confinement," and they have not made a clear showing that they have exhausted their available state court remedies.

In a statement, the organizations representing the plaintiffs applauded the order but pledged to keep fighting for the safety of the inmates and their families.

"The decision to demand Metro West jail follow the CDC's guidelines to ensure the health and safety of people currently confined there is a step in the right direction," they said. "Since it is nearly impossible to practice social distancing in jail cells, it's disappointing that the court failed to order the release of vulnerable people trapped living in the horrific conditions there." 

The county filed an appeal Wednesday night, along with a request for a stay pending the Eleventh Circuit's ruling.

Representative for the inmates did not immediately comment when reached Thursday. Counsel for the county said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The inmates are represented by Alexandria Twinem, Katherine Hubbard and Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, Katherine Alena Sanoja and Rodney Quinn Smith II of GST LLP, Meena Jagannath of Community Justice Project Inc., Thomas B. Harvey and Tiffany Yang of Advancement Project, and Lida Rodriguez-Taseff of DLA Piper.

Miami-Dade County is represented by Erica Zaron, Bernard Pastor, Ezra S. Greenberg, Zach Vosseler, Ana A. Viciana and Jennifer L. Hochstadt of the Miami-Dade County Attorney's Office.

The case is Swain et al. v. Junior et al., case number 1:20-cv-21457, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Editing by John Campbell.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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