Perhaps, if a jury had awarded Shasta County atheist Barry Hazle Jr. at least a dollar after a judge acknowledged he had been wrongly re-imprisoned for refusing to attend a religious rehab program, the state and a non-profit might not be paying him $1.925 million now.
Hazle’s attorney announced on Tuesday they had settled his lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and WestCare California, Inc., a substance abuse treatment firm based in Fresno, a year after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court had screwed up:
“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.”
Hazle, the son of the Redding Searchlight Record’s editorial page editor, began his encounter with the justice system in 2006 when he pleaded no contest 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, but was told by his parole officer that the only other available program was even more religious. Hazle was bailed out, though, when the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in September 2007 in Inouye v. Kemna that parolees could not be forced to attend a faith-based program if they objected to its religious nature.
It took a while, but U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. heard Hazle’s case in 2010. It was determined that Hazle’s rights had been violated, but the judge told the jury that WestCare could not be held liable. That left the parole officer, his supervisor and a state official as subjects for collection of damages. 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.
After the appellate court ruled compensatory damages were mandatory in constitutional imprisonment cases, the state opened settlement talks with Hazle and WestCare. In the end, the state agreed to pay $1 million and WestCare ponied up $925,000.