Atheist Is Entitled to Compensation for Being Re-Imprisoned after Refusing 12-Step Treatment

Saturday, August 31, 2013
Barry Hazle Jr.

An atheist parolee from Redding, California, is entitled to compensation for being re-imprisoned when he refused to participate in a religion-based 12-step program after his release from prison in 2007.


Last week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling that, although Barry Hazle, Jr.’s constitutional rights had been violated, he was not entitled to compensatory damages.


Hazle entered a no-contest plea to methamphetamine charges in 2006 and was given probation. But his probation was almost immediately revoked and he was locked up for a year at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a state prison in Norco. He was released in February 2007 upon condition that he attend a 90-day drug rehabilitation program.


Hazle told WestCare California, Inc., a private company that contracts with the state to provide substance abuse coordination services, that he was an atheist, and requested assignment to a non-religious treatment program. They sent him to Empire Recovery Center, where he found they used a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, including references to “God” and a “higher power.”


Hazle refused to attend and was thrown back in prison for 125 days. He filed a complaint, arguing that he was willing to attend a treatment program, just not a religious one. His parole officer told him the only available alternative to Empire was even more religious.


But shortly after Hazle filed his complaint, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), acting in response to the Ninth Circuit Court ruling in Inouye v. Kemna, issued a directive that parolees could not be forced to attend a faith-based program if they objected to its religious nature.   


U.S. District Garland E. Burrell Jr. heard Hazle’s complaint and ruled in 2010 that his rights had been violated, but excluded WestCare from liability. That left the parole officer, his supervisor and a state official as subjects for collection of damages. But after a two-day trial on compensation, the jury told the judge they were confused about whether those were the only responsible parties. He said yes, and the jury decided none of them should pay.


Hazle demanded compensation for emotional distress and loss of freedom and filed for a new trial. The judge said he was too late in his objection and denied his request, in light of “the jury . . . not find[ing] any defendant was a cause of any of Hazle’s injuries.”


Hazle appealed and on August 23 the Ninth Circuit Court said the judge was mistaken. “It should have been obvious that Hazle was entitled to at least an award of nominal damages as a result of the district judge’s finding that the state defendants violated his constitutional rights. . . . We are aware of no cases in which we have affirmed a zero-damages verdict when, as here, the existence of actual injury was indisputable.”


The case was sent back to the lower court for adjustments.

-Ken Broder     


To Learn More:

Judge: Atheist's Rights Violated (by Scott Mobley, Redding Record Searchlight)

Judge: Former Calif. Parolee Needs Compensation (by Mihir Zaveri, Associated Press)

Barry Hazle, Jr. v. Mitch Crofoot (U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)


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