SAN FRANCISCO — California should compensate an atheist parolee for returning him to prison after he resisted participating in a religious-based drug treatment program, a federal appeals court decided unanimously.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should award Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender, compensatory damages for his loss of freedom and could consider possible punitive and emotional distress damages as well.
The appeals court also ordered a district judge in Sacramento to reconsider whether to issue an injunction to prevent California officials from requiring parolees to attend treatment programs that emphasize God or a “higher power.”
After Hazle served a prison term, California ordered him to spend 90 days in a residential 12-step program. Hazle said he was atheist and asked for a secular program instead. But state officials told him they had none to offer.
Staff at the state-required treatment center reported that Hazle was disruptive “in a congenial way.” The state revoked his parole and put him back in prison for 100 days. He sued.
A Sacramento federal judge determined that Hazle had clearly suffered a violation of his constitutional rights and ordered a jury to assess monetary damages. The jury awarded zero damages.
“Given the indisputable fact of actual injury resulting from Hazle’s unconstitutional imprisonment, and the district judge’s finding that the state defendants were liable for that injury, an award of compensatory damages was mandatory,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, an appointee of former President Jimmy Carter, wrote for the panel.
The court said another jury must be convened to determine Hazle’s compensation.