Judge Largely Upholds California Law Banning Private Prisons

This April 20, 2019, photo shows the Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, Calif., a desert community northeast of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

(CN) — California’s law banning private prisons and immigration detention facilities was mostly upheld by a federal judge on Thursday, with the court denying a Trump administration request to block the law, but conceding that some private prisons would be exempt.

Assembly Bill 32, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom last year and effective Jan. 1, prohibits the operation of private detention facilities within the state. The law also sought to prohibit contracts between the federal government and private prisons to house detained immigrants.

The GEO Group, a private prison company, sued California and claimed the law is unconstitutional due to the federal government’s intergovernmental immunity should be preempted by federal law. In a separate lawsuit, the federal government sought injunctive relief from California’s ban.

GEO Group said it will lose $250 million per year in lost revenue over the next 15 years and more in capital investments under the law. They said closures would happen at all U.S. Marshal Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, including the Adelanto facility in southern California, which has seen an outbreak of Covid-19 earlier this year.

The U.S. government, which operates Bureau of Prison facilities, said 2,200 inmates in California will need to be transported out of the state, including those who live in halfway houses.

This past July during oral arguments, California argued that because the Bureau of Prisons only has one prison in the state — Taft Correctional Institute in Kern County — and has made no plans to resume operations there, the federal government would not suffer any harm under the state law.

In a 75-page order, U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino said the U.S. government could not establish that the Bureau of Prisons is likely to suffer a concrete injury.

“The court concludes that the United States has failed to establish the requisite justiciable case or controversy concerning the constitutionality of A.B. 32 as applied to its BOP facilities,” Sammartino wrote.

Sammartino later wrote the U.S. government failed to meet its burden when it came to its standing to challenge the state law.

“The United States therefore fails to demonstrate a concrete plan to violate A.B. 32 as to BOP’s privately operated prison facilities in California,” the judge wrote, dismissing the government’s claims without prejudice.

Sammartino did conclude the state law is an obstacle as applied to the U.S. Marshal Services contracts with private detention centers and as applied to GEO’s contracts with the marshals, but not an obstacle to the Bureau of Prisons’ halfway houses and ICE’s contracts with private prison centers.

“Congress clearly authorized USMS to use private detention facilities in limited circumstances, such as where the number of USMS detainees in a given district exceeds the available capacity of federal, state, and local facilities,” Sammartino wrote. 

But Congress also required all private prisons to comply with local and state laws in order to be eligible for those contracts.

“A.B. 32 therefore forecloses USMS from contracting with private detention facilities in those districts in which there does not exist sufficient availability in federal, state, or local facilities, in contravention of Congress’ clear and manifest objective that the option be available,” the judge wrote.

Sammartino sided with California when she found that A.B. 32 “does not regulate federal contracting, but rather the operation of private detention facilities within California.”

She said the U.S. government’s interest in federal contracting does not preempt California’s law and the same applies to the foreign relations and immigration.

California’s law is not a direct regulation of the U.S. government, because those private prisons are under contract.

“To meet their burden, plaintiffs must demonstrate that the federal contracts operation detention facilities are ‘so closely connected to the government that the two cannot realistically be viewed as separate entities,’” the judge wrote.

But GEO was not able to argue that similarity.

Sammartino dismissed GEO’s causes of action for intergovernmental immunity and the cause for obstacle preemption as to the company’s contracts with ICE. The U.S. government’s claims were thrown for lack of subject-matter-jurisdiction.

Sammartino did preliminarily enjoin enforcement of California’s ban against USMS’s private detention facilities because they may face “disrupted operations and the incurrence of incompensable damages, respectively.”

Emails to GEO and Newsom’s office for comment were not immediately answered.

The plaintiffs have 21 days to file an amended complaint.

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