Thursday, June 5, 2008
Court Upholds Emergency Declaration based on Prison Overcrowding
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not exceed his powers when he declared a state of emergency based on prison overcrowding and directed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to contract with out-of-state institutions to house prisoners, the Third District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Reversing a ruling by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gail D. Ohanesian, the three-judge panel concluded that the California Emergency Services Act permits the governor to proclaim a state of emergency even when the condition of peril to persons and property is within the exclusive control of the state government.
The number of California prison inmates reached a historic high in October of 2005, and the director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s division of adult institutions warned that the severe overcrowding would pose an immediate and substantial threat to the public safety.
Schwarzenegger proposed legislation in an attempt to rectify the problem, but the Legislature rejected the measures. The governor then called a special session of the Legislature, but the Legislature adjourned without taking action.
The governor then issued a “Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency Proclamation,” stating that “all 33 CDCR prisons [were] at or above maximum operational capacity, and 29 of the prisons [were] so overcrowded that the CDCR [was] required to house more than 15,000 inmates in conditions that pose substantial safety risks.”
The proclamation stated that the severe overcrowding of state prisons posed a serious threat to the health and safety of inmates, correctional officers, and the general public because of a heightened risk of inmate violence against other inmates and prison staff, power failures within the prisons, sewage spills from prison wastewater systems operating above maximum capacity, and the early release of offenders, and it directed the CDCR to contract with out-of-state institutions to house prisoners.
The California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association and other plaintiffs sought a writ of mandate and injunctive relief. They did not dispute the facts in the proclamation, but contended that the governor lacked the statutory authority to declare a prisoner overcrowding emergency.
Ohanesian determined that overcrowding was a “crisis creating conditions of extreme peril,” but she held that it was not covered by the Emergency Services Act and that the governor’s proclamation was unlawful because the emergency was “due to circumstances which are ordinarily under the control of the state government as opposed to local government.”
However, on appeal, Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland explained that the act grants the governor authority to declare a state of emergency “in conditions of…extreme peril to life, property, and the resources of the state” so as to “mitigate the effects of [the emergency]” in order to “protect the health and safety and preserve the lives and property of the people of the state.”
Noting that Government Code Sec. 8558 provides that a “state of emergency” means “the duly proclaimed existence of conditions of disaster or of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the state,” Scotland focused on the last phrase and reasoned that the act’s purview necessarily included areas within the exclusive control of the state government.
He further noted that the act contains a provision specifically dealing with “an emergency endangering the lives of inmates of a state, county, or city penal or correctional institution” which directs the governor to remove inmates to a “safe and convenient place” and confine them for “as long as may be necessary.
Thus, Scotland wrote, the issue was not whether an emergency condition arose in an area under the exclusive control of the state, but whether it posed an extreme peril to the safety of people and property that was likely to be beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment, and facilities of any single county, city and county, or city and require the combined forces of a mutual aid region or regions to combat.
Concluding that the facts presented by the governor and uncontested by the plaintiffs sufficiently established that the prison inmate overcrowding situation satisfied these criteria, Scotland remanded the matter to the trial court with directions to enter a new judgment.
Justices George Nicholson and Vance W. Raye joined Scotland in his opinion.
The case is California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association v. Schwarzenegger, 08 S.O.S. 3296.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company