On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 82-cv-01847).
Before: Sloviter, Chief Judge, Mansmann and Alito, Circuit Judges.
This is one of a group of appeals by the City of Philadelphia and its officials responsible for the operation of the Philadelphia Prison System (referred to collectively as City of Philadelphia) from orders of the district court holding it in contempt and imposing fines or stipulated penalties because of its failure to comply with various provisions of consent decrees or related orders designed to ameliorate the overcrowded conditions in the Philadelphia prison system.
In a separate opinion filed today, we affirm the order imposing stipulated penalties of $584,000 for the City's lengthy delay in submitting a Facilities Audit and Ten-Year Plan which it had undertaken to prepare as part of the Prison Planning Process, the long-term solution to overcrowding. See Harris v. City of Philadelphia, Nos. 93-1997, 93-2116, & 93-2117 (3d Cir. , 1995) (Harris V). In the same opinion, we reverse the district court's dismissal as a sanction of the City's Motion to Modify the 1986 and 1991 Consent Decrees. In a second opinion filed today, we affirm the finding of contempt and imposition of a $125,000 fine for the City's failure to meet certain occupancy standards in the substance and alcohol abuse treatment facility, a program the City undertook as one of the short-term solutions to the prison population problem. See Harris v. City of Philadelphia, No. 94-1286 (3d Cir. , 1995) (Harris VI).
This appeal is from the finding of contempt and the imposition of a $106,000 penalty for the City's unilateral change in the procedure for designation of eligible pretrial detainees for release, another of the short-term solutions to prison overcrowding. I.
The facts underlying these cases are set forth in detail in Harris V, typescript op. at 5-9. Briefly, the plaintiff class of inmates in the Philadelphia prison system and the City entered into a Consent Decree approved by the district court (the "1986 Consent Decree") to resolve the pending complaint alleging unconstitutional prison overcrowding.*fn1 The City agreed that while it was working on a long term solution to increase the number of prison facilities and beds, it would limit the number of inmates in the current facilities. Thus, the 1986 Consent Decree set a maximum allowable population ("MAP") by July 13, 1987 for the Philadelphia prison system of 3,750 inmates. The City agreed that if the inmate population exceeded the maximum it would seek the release of pretrial detainees held on the lowest bail or sentenced prisoners who had less than sixty days remaining to serve on their sentences. App. at 93. However, the 1986 Consent Decree expressly provided that the City was not "to seek the release of any person whose release would constitute an imminent threat to public safety or to the inmate's own health, safety or welfare," or "any person charged with, or convicted of, murder or forcible rape." App. at 93. If the MAP were still exceeded, the City agreed to limit new admissions to the prisons except for persons charged with or convicted of certain enumerated offenses, hence its denomination as a qualified admissions moratorium.
Despite the City's efforts between 1986 and 1988 to reduce the prison population, the district court was advised that on June 3, 1988 there were 3,981 inmates in the Philadelphia prisons, 3,035 of whom were pretrial detainees. As a result, on June 6, 1988 the district court ordered that the qualified admissions moratorium agreed to in the 1986 Consent Decree go into effect, with certain modifications. See Supp. App. at 1431-34. This barred admission until the Philadelphia prison population was within the MAP of any additional inmates except for persons charged with murder, attempted murder, forcible rape, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corrupting the morals of a minor, arson, robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, or a crime involving the use of a gun or knife, or felony drug charges involving specified amounts of narcotics. Supp. App. at 1431-32. The same order provided for release of some inmates on city-provided bail but the court stated that "notwithstanding the agreement of the parties" it would not "reduce the current population by releasing on parole various categories of sentenced inmates." Supp. App. at 1433.
Thereafter, at the request of the District Attorney, who had been granted objector status in the litigation, the court entered a series of orders excepting additional categories of defendants from the qualified admissions moratorium, including those accused of domestic violence and abuse, intimidation of witnesses or victims, those with two or more open bench warrants on non-summary offenses, and those with narcotics offenses involving lower quantities than those previously specified. See Harris v. Reeves, 761 F. Supp. 382, 387 (E.D. Pa. 1991). Because these modifications to the moratorium increased the prison population, the court ordered certain "compensatory measures," including release of certain pretrial detainees. See id.. Nonetheless, the prison population continued to grow. The court stated that it could "no longer, in good conscience, allow the prison population to remain at this dangerously high level," Supp. App. at 1296-1301, and by Order dated April 17, 1989 ("April 1989 Order") instituted new procedures for additional release of pretrial detainees. Supp. App. at 1442. This order required the City's Prison Management Unit ("PMU"), a unit established by the City at court direction, to submit the names of the inmates proposed to be released to the Special Master and the District Attorney, who was to forward objections, if any, to a listing to the Special Master within 72 hours. The April 1989 Order listed the categories of pretrial detainees eligible for release, and expressly provided that detainees charged with the enumerated offenses and domestic violence and abuse offenses were not to be released. Supp. App. at 1440-43.
These steps stabilized the prison population between 4,600 and 4,700 for a few months but it soon surged again. By August 1990 the Philadelphia prison population had risen to approximately 5000 inmates. See Supp. App. at 1385. By order entered September 7, 1990 following a hearing, the court ordered additional steps to reduce the prison population.*fn2 In addition, on September 21, 1990 the court increased the quantity of narcotics charged against defendants excepted from the admissions moratorium, see Supp. App. at 1447-48, and issued another order detailing the provisions of the then-existing qualified admissions moratorium and release mechanism. See App. at 100-08.
The population stood at 4,697 when the court approved a new Stipulation and Agreement negotiated by the parties, which it entered as an order on March 11, 1991 (the "1991 Consent Decree"). The raison d'etre for the 1991 Consent Decree was the City's suspension of plans to build the 440-bed detention facility required under the 1986 Consent Decree. The background leading to the 1991 Consent Decree is discussed in the district court's comprehensive opinion in Harris v. Reeves, 761 F. Supp. at 382-89, approving the parties' Stipulation and Agreement as reasonable. The 1991 Consent Decree effected a number of measures, providing both long-term and short-term relief, including, as relevant here, continuance of the qualified admissions moratorium as set forth in the September 21, 1990 Order and modification of the release mechanism for pretrial detainees. App. at 109-46. It is this release mechanism that forms the basis for the dispute at issue here.
Paragraph 17(a) of the 1991 Consent Decree requires the City to "designate and submit" to the Special Master the names of inmates "who meet the criteria of Paragraph 4.E.(i)-(iii) of the September 21, 1990 Order which provides for the release of [certain categories of inmates]."*fn3 App. at 116. Those with enumerated offenses ("murder, attempted murder, forcible rape, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corrupting the morals of a minor, arson, kidnapping, aggravated assault, a crime of violence committed or attempted with a firearm, knife or explosive, and escape from custody," and certain domestic violence and abuse offenses) are not eligible for release. App. at 116 (P 17(a)(2)) (incorporating by reference PP 3A & B of September 21, 1990 Order, App. at 101-02.) Paragraph 17(b) requires the City to submit to the Special Master no fewer than thirty-five (35) names per day, at least five (5) days per week, whenever the population is in excess of 3,750. App. at 117. The names of "those designated and submitted" by the PMU are to be provided to the District Attorney who "then shall have seventy-two (72) hours to communicate in writing . . . any alleged errors in application of the release criteria . . . or any objections to the release of any inmate based on considerations of public safety and supported by substantial evidence." App. at 117 (P 17(d)).
The Special Master, who is required to "direct the release of all inmates who meet the criteria set forth in Paragraph 17.a," App. at 117, has very limited discretion; he can deny a petition "if, but only if," the District Attorney objects to a particular release on public safety grounds and designates another eligible pretrial detainee as a substitute. App. at 117 (P 17(e)). The City must comply with a release order within twenty-four hours after receiving it. App. at 118 (P 17(f)). The 1991 Consent Decree provides that the City may formulate and submit to the court other criteria and procedures for release of inmates as a possible alternative or concurrent mechanism. App. at 124 (P 30).
After the District Attorney unsuccessfully sought to block or delay effectuation of the 1991 Consent Decree by appeal, the district court ordered the new release mechanism implemented on November 25, 1991. In a memorandum dated December 6, 1991 to the PMU and the City Solicitor, the Special Master summarized the release procedures in place and noted that many of the inmates for whom he would approve release orders would not be immediately released. He explicitly referred, inter alia, to "the inmate [who] has other holds such as detainers, sentence deferred cases, or more serious charges" (hereafter referred to as "other holds") as an example of an inmate who would be designated for release but was not to be released. App. at 502. Such inmates would "remain in custody until the other holds are disposed" of, i.e. presumably until the more serious charge, which would be one of the enumerated charges, was dropped or otherwise disposed of or until inmates on detainer or writs were transferred to the jurisdiction that issued them.
The 1991 Consent Decree contained a stipulated fine of $100.00 a day for each inmate "who should be designated for release in accordance with Paragraph 17 but is not so designated." App. at 119 (P 19(b)(2)). But "defendants shall not incur fines . . . if they submit to the Special Master at least thirty-five (35) names per day meeting the other requirements of Paragraph 17, even if a greater number of inmates meets the criteria set forth in Paragraph 17.a." App. at 119
Between the weeks ending November 25, 1991 and June 29, 1992 the City included in its daily list of thirty-five names pretrial detainees who had any charge that was eligible for release under what has come to be known as "Harris v. Reeves Sign-Own Bail" (generally shortened to "HvR -SOB"),*fn4 even though the detainee may have been subject to other holds or charges which would prevent an immediate release. App. at 479. The City's list of 175 names included inmates who were not eligible for release at that time as well as duplicative names because inmates were listed by charge so that a single inmate charged with more than one non-enumerated charge could be listed several times. Therefore, many fewer than the 175 listed were released. The effect of the procedure followed before July 1992 was to reduce bail on those charges that were not excepted from release, so that inmates with "other holds" could be released or transferred to another jurisdiction as soon as the basis for the "other hold" was cleared.
The events that gave rise to this particular contempt action began in early July 1992 when PMU revised its procedures in preparing the release lists following a meeting in the City Solicitor's office between Jeanne Bonney, the Director of PMU, and three members of the District Attorney's staff. There were also subsequent communications between Bonney and James Jordan, Chair of the Litigation Group of the City Solicitor's office, Ann Pasquariello, a Deputy City Solicitor, and a Special Assistant to the Mayor. App. at 482. Under the new procedure instituted, PMU only listed inmates who were eligible for immediate release. App. at 483. In addition, PMU stopped designating those detainees who the City deemed to be "a danger to themselves or to the community." App. at 483.
The new policy was formally defined in a memorandum to PMU dated August 5, 1992 by the City Solicitor's representative, Jordan, who directed that PMU list by defendants, not by charge, stating
Please discontinue the prior practice of listing by the charged offense irrespective of whether the defendant in question is absolutely ineligible for release under the applicable criteria. Thus, you should not list any defendant with any outstanding charge or other matter which would disqualify that inmate from release under the provisions of the relevant Harris orders.
App. at 426. Jordan specified the following four categories of detainees who had previously been listed and who were now not to be listed for release: (1) those with "other holds," (2) those with state or federal detainers who are being held on enumerated offenses, (3) those not eligible for release on the face of their charges, and (4) those who are a danger to themselves or to the community. App. at 426-27, 485.
Jordan also notified the Special Master and counsel for plaintiffs of the policy changes on August 5, 1992, stating, "I have instituted these changes in policy based upon my careful reading of the appropriate consent decrees, orders, stipulations and opinions." App. at 530. Plaintiffs' counsel objected to these changed procedures, and the Special Master notified the court. App. at 525-29.*fn5
In response to the plaintiffs' objections, on September 24, 1992 the City Solicitor directed PMU to resume listing all "persons who are a danger to themselves or the community" but to submit those names separately under protest. PMU has since submitted "under protest, pending modification of the Decree," a "D" list with those inmates who need special mental health treatment and a "B" list with those inmates held on bail in excess of $75,000. App. at 440-41, 492-93.
Director of PMU Bonney wrote a memorandum dated August 10, 1992 to Commissioner J. Patrick Gallagher and Deputy Commissioner Thomas Costello predicting that as a result of the City's change in procedure, there would be a substantial increase in pretrial inmate days, PMU's costs for continuous research and tracking would double, and that "at least 63 additional persons will remain in custody each week for an additional 30 days: an average 252 inmates per month, or 7,560 inmate days." App. at 552-53. In fact, during the weeks beginning August 10 through September 28, 1992, the number of inmates submitted by the City each week ranged from 45 to 101. App. at 493-94.
Plaintiffs filed a Motion on October 16, 1992 for Contempt Sanctions Against Defendants for Failure to Comply with the Court's March 11, 1991 Order. Supp. App. at 1501-14. The parties submitted the matter for Disposition on a Stipulation of Facts and the deposition of the Director of PMU. The parties stipulated that from the week of July 6, 1992 through the week of November 16, 1992, the City would have listed 1,060 additional detainees had it followed its previous listing practices. At the hearing on contempt, the district court was visibly unimpressed with the City's argument that because it had not violated a clear and unambiguous provision of the consent decree, it should not be held in contempt for its unilateral implementation of the changes in procedures,*fn6 App. at 689-712, but the court nevertheless entertained arguments from the parties and the District Attorney's office on the proper interpretation of the provisions for the release mechanism in the 1991 Consent Decree. See App. at 669-732.
In a Memorandum and Order dated June 14, 1993 the district court found the City in contempt of the 1991 Consent Decree and imposed a $106,000 fine, $55,000 which was to be paid forthwith. The fine was calculated on the basis of $100 for each inmate not designated on each release list from July 6, 1992 to November 16, 1992. The court ordered that the remainder of the fine might not be imposed if the City submitted an alternative plan to the release mechanism by July 30, 1993. The City paid the $55,000 fine but did not submit an alternative plan to the release mechanism and moved for reconsideration of the contempt finding. On September 14, 1993, the district court implicitly denied the motion for reconsideration and imposed the $51,000 balance of the fine. The City then filed a Motion Requesting that Contempt Fines Not Be Imposed, which the court denied by a Memorandum Opinion of February 16, 1994. The City appeals.
Applicable Legal Principles
The City makes three interconnected arguments on appeal: first, that the district court failed to find that the City violated a clear and unambiguous court order for the implementation of the prisoner release mechanism; second, that the 1991 Consent Decree does not in fact contain a clear and unambiguous mandate as to the procedures the City was to follow in implementing the prisoner release mechanism; and third, that the district court's legal interpretation of the 1991 Consent Decree was erroneous. Thus, the City seeks reversal of the district court's order of contempt, remission of all penalties, a declaration that ...