Fifth Circuit Rules Probation Officer Cannot Mandate Inpatient Medical Treatment for Probationers

On October 27, the Fifth Circuit ruled that a probation officer cannot require a probationer to attend in-patient mental health treatment, absent explicit judicial instruction. 

The underlying case at issue involved the appellant, Abran Martinez, appealing sentencing from a judge in the Southern District of Texas that involved supervised release. The release contained a provision that Martinez “participate in an inpatient or outpatient substance-abuse treatment program” supervised by the appellant’s probation officer. Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod remanded the case for resentencing, writing “we hold today that the judge may not delegate to the probation officer the decision to require inpatient, rather than outpatient, treatment because of the liberty interests at stake.”

The court laid out the pertinent facts as follows: Martinez violated probation in 2018 by testing positive for cocaine. In response to the positive drug test, the probation officer petitioned the district court for a modification of the terms of the supervised release to require Martinez to attend a drug-treatment program. At the sentencing for the modification of the supervised release terms, the appellant alleged that the judge orally mandated drug treatment, without declaring whether inpatient or outpatient, leaving Martinez without knowledge he needed to make an objection. Following the hearing, Martinez received the written modified terms, where he claimed he first received the information of his parole officer’s newly granted discretion.

The court ruled that the evidence reflected that Martinez lacked proper information to object during the modification hearing. Given the lack of notice, Judge Elrod determined that the trial court’s modifications of the release terms were reviewed not for plain error, but for abuse of discretion, a standard of review far less deferential to the lower court judge.

The court, noting that this was an issue of first impression in the Fifth Circuit, turned to other circuits for guidance. The appellate panel explained that “three of our sister circuits have addressed this question in published opinions, and each has decided that the court may not delegate the decision to require inpatient treatment to a probation officer because of the significant liberty interests at stake in confinement during inpatient treatment.” 

Judge Elrod chose to follow the sister circuits, ultimately adjudging that “the decision to place a defendant in inpatient treatment cannot be characterized as one of the managerial details that may be entrusted to probation officers. The decision to restrict a defendant’s liberty during the course of treatment must remain with the judge. … Inpatient treatment differs from outpatient treatment because the patient cannot leave; the patient must remain at the hospital or facility day and night throughout the duration of the treatment.”