A federal judge today refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a 100-year-old-plus statute that declares inmates serving life sentences at the ACI to be “dead in all respects” with respect to “all civil rights.” The lawsuit, filed two years ago by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys Sonja Deyoe and Lynette Labinger, is on behalf of two ACI inmates who are barred from pursuing legal actions against the Department of Corrections in court because of the “civil death” law.
As far back as 1976, a court struck down Missouri’s civil death statute, noting that “the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last thirty years.” The court observed that such laws had been characterized even before then as “archaic,” “outmoded,” “an outdated and inscrutable common law precept,” and “a medieval fiction in a modern world.” In 1937, when 18 states still had civil death laws, a law review article called the concept “outworn.”
Today’s court ruling by U.S. District Judge William Smith rejected the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which had argued that the statute was constitutional and that the suit should be brought in state court. On the constitutionality of the statute itself, the court held: “Plaintiffs’ inability to assert civil actions by virtue of this statute burdens their fundamental right of access to the courts because they are unable to challenge the conditions of their confinement, namely, the physical harm they allegedly suffered while confined.”
On the latter claim, the court noted that the R.I. Supreme Court “has expressly held that the Rhode Island state courts do not have the authority to hear civil actions brought by plaintiffs who have been sentenced to life without parole at the ACI” and therefore “Plaintiffs face the very real threatened harm of having their civil negligence claims barred by the application of an arguably unconstitutional statute.”
One of the plaintiffs, James Lombardi, is barred by the statute from suing the DOC after he cut himself in his cell on a footlocker that he claims the Department knew was hazardous. The other plaintiff, Joshua Davis, claims that a DOC nurse recklessly exposed him to blood-borne pathogens by administering insulin from a contaminated vial of medication, but the civil death statute bars him from bringing claims alleging medical negligence or other violations of his rights.
According to the lawsuit, Rhode Island is the only state in the country still enforcing a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law, although the judge cited New York and the Virgin Islands as having similar laws.
The key portion of the state law being challenged reads: “Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”
ACLU attorney Deyoe said today: “We are quite pleased to have received this decision from the Court today. The fact that this 19th Century statute still applies and prevents inmates who are serving life sentences in prison from protecting themselves in state court is unfathomable.”
ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown added: “The court’s ruling today is an important first step in ridding the state of this cruel, archaic law. No person should be denied the ability to seek judicial relief when their fundamental rights – including their right to be free from physical harm – have been violated by the state.”