Court Slams Sentence-Severing Upon Surgical Snipping

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Sullivan v. Benningfield, 920 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 2019)

In White County, Tenn., Judge Sam Benningfield offered a 30-day sentencing credit to any male inmates who agreed to undergo a free vasectomy and female inmates who agreed to a free Nexplanon implant, which provides up to three years of continuous birth control. Dozens of White County jail inmates signed up; many were surgically snipped.

Not surprisingly, the parenting-prevention plan was covered by the national media. Shortly thereafter the judge revised his order, offering the 30-day credit to any inmate who had signed up, regardless of whether the inmate had gone under the knife.

Inmates who initially refused the sentencing credit cried foul. Two of those male inmates sued, alleging the program violated their equal protection rights. They were joined by another inmate who had agreed to a vasectomy but changed his mind. No females sued. Shortly thereafter, the judge backed away from the sterilization plan entirely. Subsequently, the Tennessee legislature outlawed the practice of sterilization in exchange for sentencing credits. The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct has publicly reprimanded Judge Benningfield.

Subsequently, the Tennessee legislature outlawed the practice of sterilization in exchange for sentencing credits.

The judge claimed the case was moot because his sentencing scheme was no longer an option under state law. Cutting to the chase, the Court of Appeals acknowledged the repeal of an unconstitutional practice may render a case moot but held there were collateral consequences to the illegal sentencing scheme. The appellate court sent the matter to the trial court for a trial on the merits and potential relief for the plaintiffs. Bottom line, even if it seemed like a good idea at the time, forced or even incentivized sterilization isn’t an appropriate sentencing condition.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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