On October 3, 2022, six individuals detained at Allegheny County Jail filed this class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against three Allegheny County judges (Administrative Judge Jill Rangos and Court of Common Pleas Judges Anthony Mariani, and Kelly Bigley), as well as Jail Warden Orlando Harper, Director of Probation Frank Scherer, and other probation department officials.
The suit alleges that Allegheny County’s pervasive use of probation detainers violates their state and federal constitutional rights. Represented by counsel from Civil Rights Corps and ALC, the plaintiffs seek a declaration that Defendants’ policies and practices violate their rights to due process under the 14th Amendment, through unlawfully jailing people arrested for probation violations for prolonged periods without an adequate assessment or determination that such detention is necessary.
The plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief to change the practices that result in rampant illegal incarceration, and have moved for a preliminary injunction to immediately halt the unconstitutional practices. Finally, they seek money damages for every day of illegal detention they have suffered.
The litigation addresses the systemic use of probation detainers, the single largest driver of incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). A probation detainer prohibits an individual’s release from jail until they have a hearing to determine whether they violated their probation.
On any given day, about one third of the ACJ population has a probation detainer lodged against them. (At the time of filing, that statistic translated to about 600 people.) Approximately 16% of them are accused only of a technical violation of probation, such as failing to update their address or to meet with their probation officer. Most of the people with new charges — the other reason for alleged violations — are theoretically able to be released on either monetary or non-monetary bail. But because of the probation detainer, they’re stuck behind bars.
The suit challenges the constitutionality of the perfunctory proceedings at which decisions regarding detainers are made, and Judges Mariani and Bigley’s blanket administrative “no-lift” policies, automatically requiring all people they supervise who are arrested for an alleged probation violation to remain in jail, no matter the circumstances of the probation violation.
Dion Horton is the lead named plaintiff in the case. At the time the case was filed in October 2022, he had been in ACJ since February 2022 for allegedly violating probation after being accused of new offenses. A judicial officer in a separate proceeding ordered that he could be released from jail on those new charges. However a probation detainer was lodged against him, with no separate determination that his incarceration was necessary.