Fifth Circuit Splits with Sixth in Prisoner’s COVID-19 Habeas Case

An appellate panel has refused a detainee’s request to be released from custody due to perceived unsafe conditions at a Harris County, Texas, jail given his underlying health conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic. In a decision issued last week, the Fifth Circuit ruled that federal habeas law does not permit the release of prisoners held in state custody due to adverse confinement conditions.

In particular, the detainee claimed that his pre-existing conditions, including asthma and hypertension, placed him at high risk of contracting COVID-19. In jail, he contended, living conditions make it tremendously difficult, if not impossible, to practice proper hygiene and social distancing. He concluded that because the jail could not effectively protect his constitutional rights, he should be released.

A Southern District of Texas judge reviewed the detainee’s petition, though reportedly there was confusion about whether it sought injunctive or habeas relief. The lower court ultimately denied relief regardless of whether the petition was brought under federal civil rights or habeas law.

The appellate panel construed the filing as a habeas petition, thereby conferring it jurisdiction over the matter. The judges held that the detainee failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because he was not leveling a challenge at the “underlying legal basis for the fact or duration of his confinement,” but was instead contesting the conditions of his detainment.

In a footnote, the Fifth Circuit remarked that last year, the Sixth Circuit interpreted the same habeas provision differently. In contrast to the instant decision, which the court noted was dictated by circuit precedent, the Sixth Circuit’s published opinion found that the habeas provision at issue “provides jurisdiction and potential relief for federal prisoners to seek COVID-related release from custody.”