Court of Appeals Ruling Could Weaken Interstate Compact Power

On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued a decision in United States v. Pleau, siding with the federal government. Considering the case’s broad implications on the federal-state relationship, The Council of State Governments had partnered with the National Governors Association in signing onto an amicus curiae brief opposing the federal government’s position.

The issue in the case is whether the federal government can compel state compliance when requesting a prisoner custody transfer under an interstate compact. Jason Wayne Pleau was charged with robbing and murdering a gas station owner in Rhode Island who was on his way to cash in the day’s receipts. While in custody, Pleau reached a plea deal with the state, agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for the maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. However, the federal government also filed charges against Pleau, noting that he was eligible for the death penalty under federal law.

The federal government initially asked for custody of the prisoner, citing the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, a compact first championed by CSG in 1957 and subsequently joined by 46 states, as the legal justification.  The Governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, denied the transfer request under his authority in the same interstate compact. The federal government then filed a writ of habeas corpus to prosecute in federal district court, which was granted by the court and appealed by Pleau and the governor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Court then voted to hear the case.

In their 11 page opinion, the court sided 3-2 with the federal government, citing the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution and insisting that if the state’s argument were upheld “Instead of a place of confinement, the state prison system would become a refuge against federal charges.”

However, in a strongly-worded dissent, two circuit court judges sided with the governor and CSG’s argument. The judges state that “the majority fails to follow the express terms of the [interstate compact], snubs the rules applicable to the enforcement of interstate compacts as reiterated most recently by the Supreme Court, and compounds these errors by misconstruing [precedent].” The dissenting judges also stated that they did not believe the Supremacy Clause is implicated here.

Governor Chafee has already announced his intention to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.  Given that states are increasingly turning to interstate compacts to solve problems and foster cooperation both among states and with their federal counterparts the results of this case, and any future appeal, may have implications for decades to come. 

To read the full decision, click here: http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/pdf.opinions/11-1775EB-01A.pdf