State Interposition and Death Penalty Issue Brewing at SCOTUS



The folks over at SCOTUS Blog have a good story up on a dispute between Rhode Island and the federal government concerning custody of state prisoner. Jason Pleau is in state custody but also under federal indictment for a robbery in which a person was killed. It is possible that Pleau could face the death penalty in federal court. Pleau is serving an 18-year state sentence on other charges. To secure Pleau’s presence in federal court, the feds invoked the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act, which provides what is supposed to be an efficient shortcut to achieve extradition of a state prisoner to stand trial in another state or, in the event of a federal request, to make unnecessary the prior custom of a federal habeas action. In this instance, Rhode Island’s governor refused the IAD request because of his stated opposition to capital punishment. Not to be deterred, the federal government then sought a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum from the district court to secure custody of Pleau. This writ is the traditional and usual method by which a federal court obtains custody of state prisoners. This writ may issue when it is necessary to bring a state prisoner into court to testify or for trial.

Rhode Island argues that the IAD statute precludes the federal government’s use of the habeas writ, after a detainer has been filed and an initial IAD request has been rejected. The state also argues that the governor may reject the habeas writ. The feds countered that under the supremacy clause, the state must turn over the inmate and that an IAD request does not preclude seeking a writ for a state prisoner. The First Circuit Court of Appeals, in a divided decision, ruled with the feds and now Rhode Island has asked Justice Breyer to stay the First Circuit’s mandate and thus permit it to retain custody of Pleau.

It will be interesting to see how the Supremes handle this one.

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