Early one morning in 1997, Vernon Valdez Stewart, under the influence of marijuana, hot-wired a Chevy Suburban in Seattle, ran a red light in Tacoma at 60 mph, and collided with Paula Joyce’s pickup, killing her. Because Stewart was on supervised parole at the time, Joyce’s family believed that taxpayers should be held responsible, and a jury agreed, awarding $22 million in damages. Stewart had bipolar disorder, and thus, the theory went, the parole office should have taken special care to revoke his parole as soon as they could, and failed the opportunity to do so, thus making the state vicariously liable for the crimes he committed. That the state had pending notices of parole violation at the time of the accident to take Stewart into custody was apparently irrelevant; after all, in hindsight, the state could have done so sooner or asked for a bench warrant. Headlines indicate that the Washington Supreme Court overturned the judgment, which had grown to $33 million with interest. But the Court did so on a technicality of jury instructions; it reaffirmed that “the State has a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect against reasonably foreseeable dangers posed by the dangerous propensities of parolees.” The Court also held it irrelevant that a judge was not obligated to lock up Stewart for the parole violations, and might have chosen not to (just as the judge didn’t for the original crime that left Stewart on parole).
Because it’s reasonably foreseeable that a previously convicted criminal might injure someone in the course of a crime, and it’s always possible to prevent that by locking up the parolee, the decision effectively makes taxpayers liable for any crimes committed by the 29,000 parolees in the state. Here, the plaintiffs complain that the state should have been monitoring Stewart’s driving and mental health, but were given no requirement by the court to do so, effectively creating a huge expansion in the Corrections Department’s responsibility without the concomitant power to do anything about it. As the Supreme Court’s dissent notes, “How can specific conditions of release and the authority created therein give rise to a take charge relationship and a corresponding duty, but the duty created be in no way limited by the supervision conditions and authority through which the duty was enabled?” (Jonathan Martin, “Court rules state can be held liable if supervised felons commit crimes”, Seattle Times, Sep. 16; Rachel La Corte, AP, Sep. 15; Joyce v. Washington Dept. of Corrections; dissent; Morelaw trial digest; related Washington v. Stewart decision).
Stewart’s punishment for his original crime given his juvenile criminal history and his subsequent parole violations was absurdly weak; it shouldn’t have taken a felony-murder to get him jail for more than 86 days. But that’s at least as much fault of the state’s laws and the judge as of the prosecutors, perhaps more so. And even if taxpayers should be required to compensate the victim of this crime, as opposed to other crimes, $22 million is also an absurd amount. It’s also worth noting that Stewart’s criminal jury did not find him insane, but the plaintiffs in the civil case were allowed to argue that he was psychotic.
It’s a regular complaint of the criminal defense bar and law professors that parole is poorly designed and can cause recidivism in convicted criminals. If future parole conditions seem especially strict in Washington state, you can thank the plaintiffs’ bar’s regulation through litigation. Then again, the Department of Corrections said that they would not change their policy in response to the decision; why should they, when they’re not paying the bill?