Crime - Sacto 911

Shasta atheist wins $2 million settlement over drug program

A Shasta County atheist whose parole agent required him to participate in a religious-oriented drug treatment program has settled his lawsuit against the state and a rehabilitation contractor for nearly $2 million.

Barry A. Hazle Jr. did a year in prison on a narcotics conviction. His release on parole was revoked – and he was sent back to prison for more than three months – after he complained about mandated attendance at a drug treatment program where acknowledgment of a higher power is required.

Hazle, 46, sued officials of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation six years ago in Sacramento federal court. Six weeks later, the department issued a directive that parole agents may not compel a parolee to take part in religious-themed programs. A parolee who objects should be referred to nonreligious treatment, the directive said, citing federal case law.

Those rules remain in effect today, according to CDCR spokesman Luis Patino.

Hazle also sued WestCare California Inc., a Fresno-based substance abuse treatment firm which contracts with CDCR to coordinate treatment for parolees in an area that includes Shasta County.

U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. found that compelling Hazle to attend the program ran “afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favoring religion in general over nonreligion,” and violated a constitutional right against government imposing religious beliefs on him.

But when the case went to trial on the issue of money, the jury refused to award damages for Hazle’s loss of freedom and emotional distress.

In August 2013, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw the jury’s verdict out, ruling that Hazle must be compensated for the violation of his constitutional right.

The three-judge circuit panel sent the case back to Burrell for a new trial and directed the judge to instruct the jury that Hazle is entitled to damages.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, announced Tuesday by Hazle’s attorney, John Heller, the state is obligated to pay Hazle $1 million and WestCare agreed to cough up $925,000.

The appellate panel ruled last year that there is “a genuine issue of material fact” that WestCare contributed to the violation of Hazle’s constitutional right when it chose to contract with treatment facilities offering only religious-based programs, and when it arranged for Hazle to attend one despite knowing he is an atheist who had objected to such a program.

WestCare did not respond Tuesday to a call seeking comment.

In a Tuesday telephone interview of Hazle and Heller, the attorney commended his client for “the courage and stamina he demonstrated during this six-year ordeal.”

Both men said they are pleased that the case resulted in the opinion from the 9th Circuit. The opinion imbues the case with much more significance than it would otherwise carry, they said.

The jury’s no-damages verdict was “a big disappointment,” Heller recalled. But, he said, “that low point led to the circuit opinion, which has a reach far beyond Barry’s particular situation. It made clear that a loss of liberty entitles a person to compensatory damages as a matter of right. It tells others that they have this right, and it informs authorities what they can expect if that right is violated. That might keep things like this from happening in the future.”

Heller pointed out that the published opinion is now the law in the 9th Circuit, comprised of nine western states and two Pacific island territories.

Hazle said he intends to become active in drug rehabilitation efforts in the Redding area. Looking further down the road, he would like to build a home in the mountains, he said.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.