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DOC employees who miscalculated up to 1,500 sentences are denied qualified immunity by Seventh Circuit

John Sabo v. Megan Erickson, No. 21-3332, 4/30/24

In an interesting § 1983 appeal, Sabo reveals a disturbing trend of miscalculated sentences by the Wisconsin DOC.

We know that this is a criminal appeals blog and that a stand-alone post for this § 1983 case is a little off the beaten track compared to our usual fare. But the facts revealed about the Wisconsin DOC compelled inclusion.

The saga begins in 2004, when Sabo pleaded guilty to an OWI offense and received five years probation. (p.3). However, this exceeds the maximum by two years. At this point in time, there were two employees in the DOC’s Records Unit whose task was to review and correct unlawful sentences. (Id.). However, Sabo’s case sailed through DOC review without any corrections. Why? Well, it turns out that both employees (perhaps relying on an inaccurate chart) had a pattern of miscalculating sentences since 2003. (Id.). They did not realize their error, however, until 2005. By their own estimation, that means they failed to catch erroneous probation terms in up to 1,500 individual cases. (Id.). Notably, although the two employees realized their error in 2005, it does not appear that anyone was ever notified or that any sentences were ever corrected. (Id).

Cut to 2014, when Sabo began his probation, as it was consecutive to other sentences. After chugging along for three years and five months, he was then arrested and placed on a probation hold in 2017. (Id.). Sabo did not realize his probation had already legally expired until he was in jail facing revocation. (p.4). Although his lawyer alerted the DOC about the error in 2018, the DOC–relying on the advice of DOC legal counsel–believed commutation under § 973.09(2m) was unavailable. (Id.). The parties eventually contacted the circuit court, which released Sabo after amending the JOC. (Id.). As a result of the DOC’s error, Sabo spent almost a year on probation in excess of the statutory maximum, 133 days of which were spent in jail. (Id.).

On appeal from proceedings in the district court following Sabo’s filing of a § 1983 lawsuit, the Court holds that Sabo has adequately pleaded “a claim of deliberate indifference” against the two DOC employees who reviewed Sabo’s sentence and who later failed to take any steps even after they discovered their ongoing pattern of error. (p.12). And, because their actions were “egregious and unreasonable” the Court likewise holds that, in reviewing the district court’s summary judgment ruling, the record does not support a claim of qualified immunity for these two employees. (p.16).

Thus, while Sabo’s claims against his probation agent and the regional supervisor fail, this means that Sabo’s lawsuit against the DOC employees will continue in district court. (p.18).

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Jeff Scott Olson May 15, 2024, 12:08 pm

    Our law firm litigated this case, and we have handled other damages claims for inmates kept in custody beyond their lawful sentence terms. If you know of individuals who might have such damages claims, we might be interested.

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