Federal Court Won't Release Miami Inmate With COVID-19

By Nathan Hale
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Law360 (May 18, 2020, 8:29 PM EDT) -- A wheelchair-using jail inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 will remain in Miami-Dade County's custody for now, as a federal judge said Monday it appears he is being properly isolated, but she also directed the parties to resolve allegations of inadequate care and why a bond review hearing hasn't been set in state court.

Miami-based U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams said at the conclusion of a telephonic hearing that she was reserving ruling on the emergency motion for immediate release on bail for Daniel Swain, who is the named plaintiff in a proposed class suit pushing to get medically vulnerable inmates released from Miami-Dade County's Metro West Detention Center.

She also said she was not yet ready to address the inmates' request for release on a writ of habeas corpus, despite an assertion in Swain's motion that it would be "simply inhumane" to make him wait for the court's full consideration of that issue.

"Today's hearing was painfully disappointing," Katherine Hubbard of Civil Rights Corps told Law360, adding that Swain has been held in Metro West awaiting trial for four years because he cannot afford to pay the money bond set by the state court.

Judge Williams seemed to approve of the county's plan to keep Swain — who tested positive for COVID-19 after he was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital on May 10 for treatment for other medical issues — in isolation at its Turner Guildford Knight Correctional Center until May 25 before evaluating whether to return him to a "medical isolation unit" at Metro West.

"He is being treated appropriately as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19," she said.

But the judge also said she expected the county to check — as one of its attorneys said during the hearing it would — on plaintiffs' counsel Alec Karakatsanis' claim that Swain is not currently receiving the attention he needs as a paraplegic with multiple health concerns and was left to sit in his own feces for six to seven hours on Sunday.

"That doesn't sound to be what one would characterize as adequate medical care, understanding that Mr. Swain, aside from COVID concerns, has special needs," Judge Williams said.

The judge also pressed the parties to get to the bottom of the plaintiffs' statements that the state court presiding over Swain's criminal case has issued no response to an emergency motion he filed April 15 seeking a bond reduction as well as supplemental documents filed April 24 and a phone call by his criminal defense attorney to the judge's chambers.

"I do want this to take its normal course, because I have been assured by the county and [Circuit Criminal Division Administrative Judge Nushin] Sayfie that emergency matters are being addressed in a manner that reflects that this is an emergency," Judge Williams said.

Judge Williams said she hoped Swain's defense attorney or other interested parties would be able to avail themselves of Judge Sayfie's offer during testimony she gave in this case to serve as a liaison for any issues with courts in her division.

And although she stressed that she was "not assuming that anyone is not doing their job," Judge Williams pressed the county attorneys on whether the plaintiffs are correct that an extraordinary writ of mandamus is the next step they would have to take in the face of silence from the state circuit court.

An acrimonious tenor between the parties that has characterized the case continued during Monday's hearing, prompting the judge to voice her hope for change as they address these various issues.

"Why is the finger being pointed this way that we haven't made clear the process," county attorney Erica Zaron said at one point in regard to Swain's efforts to get a hearing on his bond. "It goes beyond suspicion that every plaintiff could articulate through their lawyers what they have done except Mr. Swain."

"I think the premise now is there is this emergency, the pandemic. And people are efforting to address it," Judge Williams said later in the hearing. "I don't think either side is served by starting from the premise that whatever is being presented by the other side is somehow not based in some reality or truth, and I think it's hampering all the efforts in this case."

The judge said she wanted both sides, "if they could, at the very least," to exchange pertinent information about Mr. Swain, so they could be certain that he is not subjected to the type of conditions his attorney described during the hearing and that he is being monitored in accordance with the COVID-19 protocol the county has set out previously.

Hubbard said counsel in this case will do what it can to get Swain a hearing in state court, and she said she took Judge Williams' statements Monday to mean that the federal court is willing to reconsider Swain's motion as it gets closer to May 25 and his potentially being sent back to Metro West.

"But I think, in large part, that will depend on what will happen with the state court and whether he is able to get the hearing that the defendants claim is available to him, despite the strong evidence to the contrary," Hubbard said.

Judge Williams has declined to directly order the release of any inmates but on April 30 ordered the county to continue court-mandated safety precautions and reports to the court on the inmate population at Metro West. The Eleventh Circuit, however, granted the county a stay of that order on appeal.

Counsel for the county did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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 Stephen Berg.

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

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