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Ninth Circuit skeptical of inmates’ bid for release over Covid fears

Two federal judges ruled they lack jurisdiction over habeas petitions that challenge the conditions of confinement.

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — A three-judge Ninth Circuit panel had doubts Thursday that inmates who say their medical conditions put them at risk of Covid should be released.

Jeremy Pinson and Bruce Sands Jr. filed habeas corpus petitions against Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and the United States in 2020 and 2021, respectively, claiming the facilities they were imprisoned in lacked Covid-19 protections and therefore violated their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

Pinson, serving time at the federal penitentiary in Victorville, California, for sending a letter containing a death threat to former president George W. Bush among other charges of mail intimidation and false statements, claims her asthma, obesity and estrogen-related blood clots put her at high risk of contracting Covid-19. She says in her petition that the facility failed to provide personal protective equipment like masks and gloves and denied her the ability to regularly wash her hands and practice proper social distancing.

Sands, serving time in the Lompoc Federal Corrections Complex for large-scale investment fraud, makes similar claims. He says he has “severe hypertension and obesity” that resulted in organ damage in 2020. He claims the prison failed to treat him for his medical issues in addition to not taking Covid-19 preventative measures. He says in his petition against both the United States and Patricia Bradley, the complex warden, that he received an “indeterminate” result in a Covid-19 test, and wasn’t properly isolated or followed up with.

Federal judges in the Central District of California dismissed both petitions, finding that they lacked jurisdiction over petitions challenging the conditions of confinement.

Both inmates appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where their cases were consolidated.

At a hearing Thursday, U.S. Attorney Suria Bahadue told the panel of Donald Trump appointees there’s a test to see whether claims for relief fall under habeas corpus.

“If the claims (are) successful on their merits, would they result in speedier release?” she asked, adding the claims brought forth by Pinson and Sands Jr. would not.

Public defender Gary Rowe, representing the petitioners, disagreed, saying habeas corpus jurisdiction depends on what the petitioner is pleading, not on the merits of the claims.

Here, the inmates asked for immediate release, arguing in an appellate brief that “under no set of circumstances could ongoing imprisonment during the Covid-19 pandemic satisfy the Eighth Amendment.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Bridget Bade questioned whether the courts must take the petitioners' words at face value.

“That suggests that there’s absolutely no limits to curb any potential abuse,” she said. “They just make the claim that there’s no other form of relief, whether that’s true or not, and we have to treat it as habeas corpus?”

U.S. Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest seemed to concur.

“That all by itself gets you into habeas land?” she asked Rowe. “If you just have those magic words, even if the facts presented are outlandish?”

Rowe asked the panel to overturn the lower courts' findings of no habeas corpus jurisdiction and to order them to decide the cases on the merits instead.

U.S. Circuit Judge Ryan Nelson told Rowe that sending the case back to the lower courts could easily result in the decision that the merits of the petitions don’t hold up either.

“You’re asking to win the battle but lose the war,” he told Rowe.

The panel did not indicate when or how it will rule.

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