Prisoner Who Refused Water During Ramadan Can Sue on Religious Grounds
In November 2003, prison guards at the Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York ordered Darryl Holland to take a drug test. He had three hours to provide a urine sample. But the order was not so simple. Holland was Muslim and it was Ramadan and he had not drunk any water all day. The guards gave him water to drink for the sample. Holland refused to drink it and asked if the guards could take the sample after sundown, once his fast was over.
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The guards denied this request. Instead, they punished Holland, revoking various privileges for 90 days.
Last week, after several years of legal battles, a federal court ruled that Holland is allowed to sue the prison for violating his First Amendment right to religious freedom.
The decision, released on Thursday by the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, reversed a lower-courts ruling that previously prohibited Holland from making a claim against the prison, Courthouse News Service first reported.
On November 20, 2003, Captain Martin Kearney had received a tip from a confidential informant that Holland was using drugs inside the prison, which is in Erie County. At around 2 p.m., a correctional officer went to Holland's cell to get the urine sample. He had not eaten or drunk anything since 4:30 a.m., so he could not produce the sample.
Department of Corrections procedure states that if an inmate can't produce a sample right when he is asked, then a guard gives him water and the inmate has three hours to produce the sample. If he still doesn't have the sample after those three hours, he has officially "refused" the test. An inmate who refuses a drug test is eligible for the same punishment as what he would have gotten for a failed test.
At 5:15 p.m., a guard issued a misbehavior report. At a later hearing, which lasted five minutes, a corrections officer found Holland guilty of a "urinalysis testing violation."
The punishment was 90 days of keep-lock, which means he could not leave his cell, and 90 days of lost privileges: He was prohibited from watching television, using the phone, visiting the commissary, and receiving packages.
But after 77 days the prison's superintendent abruptly reversed the decision to punish Holland. Though it is unclear what caused the superintendent to act, in 2007, Holland sued the prison and over the next few years, two courts rejected his claims. They ruled that any possible constitutional violation was too trivial to matter, or, in legal terms, "de minimis." The U.S. District Court of Western New York concluded in 2013 that, "being requested to drink a small amount of water for purposes of complying with [the rule's] three-hour time limit was a de minimis burden on Holland's free exercise of his religion and fails to state a colorable constitutional claim."
The Second Circuit, however, disagreed.
"Though Holland cited his fast to explain why he could not comply with the order or drink water to aid his compliance, [prison officials] did not permit Holland an opportunity to provide a urine sample after sunset when his fast had ended," the court stated. The prison "permitted Holland a choice between prematurely breaking his fast or facing confinement in keep-lock. That choice--as has been clearly established by our precedent for decades--placed a substantial burden on the free exercise of his religion."
Holland was in prison at Wende from 1999 to 2005. The Second Circuit ruling means that he can pursue a lawsuit against the prison.
Next: the text of the court's decision.