A writ of habeas corpus is a legal petition filed by a person who is detained or imprisoned, challenging the legality of their detention. The purpose of a writ of habeas corpus is to bring the detained individual before a court or judge to determine whether their imprisonment or detention is lawful.
People v. Keyser, 184 A.D.3d 189 (N.Y. App. Div. 2020) involves an appeal from an order of the Supreme Court which granted petitioner’s application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Jalil Muntaqim, a 68-year-old black inmate serving concurrent prison sentences at Sullivan Correctional Facility. The petitioner argued that Muntaqim’s continued detention at the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic amounted to unconstitutional punishment due to his age, race, and underlying medical conditions, putting him at significant risk of serious illness or death if infected with the virus.
Jalil Muntaqim, formerly known as Anthony Bottom, was convicted of murder in 1975 and has been serving his sentence at Sullivan Correctional Facility. In April 2020, the petitioner commenced a special proceeding for a writ of habeas corpus, citing Muntaqim’s advanced age, race, and medical conditions as factors putting him at high risk of COVID-19 complications. The petitioner argued that the prison authorities were failing to adequately protect Muntaqim from the risk of infection, thus subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment.
The deliberate indifference standard, as applied in this case, refers to a legal concept used to determine whether government officials, such as prison authorities, have violated an individual’s constitutional rights, particularly in cases involving cruel and unusual punishment.
Under this standard, a plaintiff must demonstrate two key elements to establish a violation of their constitutional rights:
- Objective Component: The plaintiff must show that they were subjected to conditions that posed a substantial risk of serious harm. In the context of this case, the objective component would require showing that Jalil Muntaqim faced a significant risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the conditions of his confinement at Sullivan Correctional Facility.
- Subjective Component: The plaintiff must also establish that the government officials acted with deliberate indifference to the risk of harm. Deliberate indifference means that the officials were aware of the risk to the plaintiff’s health and safety but consciously disregarded it.
In this case, the petitioner argued that the prison authorities were deliberately indifferent to Muntaqim’s risk of contracting COVID-19, given his advanced age, race, and underlying medical conditions.
The lower court, Supreme Court, ruled on the matter after hearing arguments from both parties. Despite acknowledging that the Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS) had not committed any wrongdoing, the court determined that DOCCS was unable to adequately address the health risks posed to Jalil Muntaqim by his continued incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, Supreme Court ordered Muntaqim’s “immediate emergency release” to a private residence, where he would serve the remainder of his sentence under the jurisdiction of DOCCS. The DOCCS appealed.
The central issue in this case is whether Muntaqim’s continued detention at Sullivan Correctional Facility during the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes unconstitutional punishment, given his age, race, and underlying medical conditions.
The appellate court reversed the Supreme Court, holding that the petitioner failed to demonstrate the illegality of Muntaqim’s confinement.
The petitioner argued that Muntaqim’s confinement violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, alleging that the prison authorities exhibited deliberate indifference to the risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, the court found that while Muntaqim may have been incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of harm, there was no evidence of deliberate indifference on the part of prison officials. Despite the emergence of COVID-19 cases at Sullivan Correctional Facility and Muntaqim’s subsequent hospitalization, the court determined that prison officials had taken steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, including implementing social distancing measures, providing masks to inmates, and isolating infected individuals.
Furthermore, the court rejected the petitioner’s argument that Muntaqim’s sentence became grossly excessive due to the risks created by the pandemic. While acknowledging that sentences may be deemed unconstitutional if grossly disproportionate to the offense, the court found no evidence to support such a claim in Muntaqim’s case. Therefore, the court concluded that the petitioner failed to demonstrate the illegality of Muntaqim’s confinement and reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court.
The appellate court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court, holding that the petitioner failed to establish that Muntaqim’s continued detention at Sullivan Correctional Facility constituted unconstitutional punishment. Despite the emergence of COVID-19 cases at the facility and Muntaqim’s hospitalization, the court found no evidence of deliberate indifference on the part of prison officials. Consequently, Muntaqim’s confinement was deemed lawful, and the petition was dismissed.