Civil death lives!

The first and foremost collateral consequence in Colonial America was civil death; based on the grim fact that felonies were punished by execution, upon conviction, the law began to wrap up the convict’s affairs.  As the law developed, capital punishment ceased to be the default punishment, and civil death was seen as too harsh for a felon who might serve a probationary sentence instead of being executed or even going to prison at all.  The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently issued an opinion demonstrating that this ancient doctrine is not entirely obsolete.

In Gallup v. Adult Correctional Institutions, the court upheld dismissal of a complaint alleging that the state negligently allowed the plaintiff, a prisoner serving life, to be assaulted by another inmate.  The court pointed to the state’s civil death statute, which applies to prisoners serving life in an adult correctional institution. Such persons “shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”  Of U.S. jurisdictions, only Rhode Island, New York, and the Virgin Islands maintain civil death, and New York’s statute has many exceptions.  There is, accordingly, not much modern law on the scope of civil death statutes.

One wonders whether the Rhode Island statute could really extend to the full scope of its language; could a lifer be denied, for example, freedom of religion and speech under the U.S. and/or Rhode Island constitutions?  Suggesting that the answer is “no” is the fact that the court granted the plaintiff leave to plead a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action based on the same underlying facts; the court recognized that a state statute cannot eliminate federal rights.

That acknowledgement raises the hard question of the extent to which the federal Constitution protects the property, right to marry, and “civil rights and relations” of even a person serving a life sentence.