United States v. Jason Wayne Pleau: A tipping point for Interstate Compacts???

The First Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case of The United States v. Jason Wayne Pleau on April 4, 2012.  While there are many unresolved legal questions surrounding this case, at the very heart of the matter is the question of state sovereignty and practical implications for governors whose states are members of interstate compacts in which the federal government is also a participant. 

The compact in question is the Interstate Agreement on Detainers (IAD), which has been adopted by 51 states (including territories) and Congress.  The compact aims to “facilitate expeditious and orderly disposition of charges pending against a prisoner.”  In the case Jason Wayne Pleau, a Rhode Island resident, robbed and murdered a gas station manager.  Pleau pled guilty to the charge of murder and accepted a sentence of life in prison, which is the maximum sentence that can be handed down under Rhode Island law.  As this was happening the federal government simultaneously filed federal charges against the Defendant and noted in the federal indictment that the Defendant would be eligible for the death penalty.  At the time the federal charges were filed, the government also requested a temporary transfer of the Defendant under the IAD.

Under existing IAD rules, the Governor from a sending state may deny a transfer request from another compact member.  Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee did that very thing, citing the state’s long-standing objections to the death penalty.  As a result the federal government filed suit in Federal District Court opposing Gov. Chafee’s initial denial.  After a series of back and forth discussions the case has finally been set and will be heard by the Court of Appeals in April. 

This particular case has broad implications for states that are members of an interstate compact that also includes the federal government.  While the denial of transfer appears to be a first under the IAD, Gov. Chafee handled everything as the compact requires, meeting all the given timelines and following the rules set forth in the agreement.  Despite this, it seems the federal government recognizes themselves as a “greater member” of the compact than an individual state.  The very nature of the suit challenges the authority of states under the compact clause and could have far reaching consequences however it turns out. 

CSG’s National Center for Interstate Compacts will continue to monitor this case and will provide regular updates as the case unfolds.