May 9, 2012

Pulling the Monkey Wrench Out of the Machinery of Death

Last year I wrote about an interesting dispute playing out in New England about a man named Jason Pleau. To recap, Pleau, who is serving 18 years in prison in Rhode Island, has been indicted on several federal charges (including robbery and murder) that could expose him to the death penalty. When the feds invoked the Interstate Agreement on Detainers to have Pleau transferred to federal custody to be prosecuted, Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee invoked a little known provision of the IAD to deny the request, on the grounds that Rhode Island doesn’t have the death penalty and the feds shouldn’t step in and use it there. Undaunted, the feds filed a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum to obtain Pleau. Rhode Island again said no, arguing that it’s denial under the IAD controlled.

The case went to federal court and, to the surprise of lots of observers (including me!), the First Circuit Court of Appeals held (2-1) that the feds had no right to Pleau. Once the feds used the IAD procedure, they were bound by its outcome. Last week, the entire First Circuit, sitting en banc, vacated that decision and held (over two dissents) that the IAD provisions don’t trump the good old fashioned Supremacy Clause in the Constitution, meaning that the feds get what they want.

The en banc decision produced a dissent that I find fairly compelling. If nothing else, the court’s ruling makes the IAD almost superfluous in this area, if the writ can be used anytime there’s a hang up. But I suspect the case will die here. It’s an interesting legal issue, but incredibly fact specific and unlikely to recur with any kind of frequency, which means the Supreme Court is unlikely to take the case. But, as you can see, I’ve been wrong before.

What will really be interesting to see is whether the feds, after fighting this battle, will be inclined to do anything other than seek the death penalty. Pleau offered to plead guilty in Rhode Island to the underlying offenses and take life. It would be too easy if the feds made the same offer and were done with it, right?

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