Davis v. Hopper

Summary

After a federal appeals court upheld Alabama's policy of segregating all prisoners with HIV — regardless of their crimes, sentences or behavior — Lambda Legal stepped in with a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 10 public health groups and physicians, for the case's final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief, cowritten by Lambda Legal and the Whitman-Walker Legal Clinic of Washington, D.C., argued that in a normal prison setting, the risk of HIV transmission is almost nonexistent, and that inmates with HIV pose no direct threat to other inmates or staff. Because the Alabama policy separated out those with HIV, it excluded them from scores of educational, religious and drug-treatment opportunities that could affect how much time they would serve and how prepared they would be to return to free society. The brief further argued that segregating prisoners based solely on their HIV status and a very slight, theoretical risk of HIV transmission violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (which protects people with disabilities, including HIV, from unfair discrimination). Though the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case — letting the previous decision stand — he high court neither approved nor disapproved Alabama's policy, only indicating that it would not rule on the issues raised by the case.

Context

In 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that, under the ADA, policies and procedures regarding people with HIV must rely on objective, scientific evidence regarding the "statistical likelihood" of transmission. Segregation of inmates with HIV has been condemned by the National Commission on AIDS, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the Federal Bureau of Prisons as having absolutely no legitimate basis in public health. Unfortunately, by failing to review this case, the Supreme Court did not address this important issue.

Lambda Legal's Impact

Though the appeal did not succeed, our friend-of-the-court brief helped highlight the discrimination people with HIV face in some prison systems.

History

  • 1988 Case filed in federal district court in Alabama.
  • 1990 After trial, district court rules that inmate’s constitutional rights were not violated.
  • 1991 Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sends case back to trial court for fact finding
  • 1994 After second trial, district court again rules against plaintiffs
  • 1999 The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms district court, ruling that Alabama's total segregation of inmates with HIV did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • January 2000 The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, letting the lower court's ruling stand.

Case Information

Plaintiffs

Lydia K. Onishea and several other prisoners, on behalf of a class of inmates with HIV in the Alabama prison system (case entitled Onishea v. Hopper in lower courts)

Attorneys

Co-counsel/Cooperating Attorneys
American Civil Liberties Union Prisoner's Rights Project, Dan Bruner and Amanda Maisel of the Whitman-Walker Legal Clinic