St. Lawrence Co. inmate released after petition filed

St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility, 17 Commerce Lane, Canton. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — A St. Lawrence County jail inmate has been released after filing a petition in state Supreme Court challenging his incarceration.

Filed Monday by the St. Lawrence County Public Defender’s Office on behalf of Roland C. Thomas, the petition called for a writ of habeas corpus and the release of Mr. Thomas from the county jail.

The concept of habeas corpus dates back several centuries to the Magna Carta, and now provides protections for the incarcerated under U.S. state, federal and case law.

Former U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall described “the great object” of habeas corpus as “the liberation of those who may be imprisoned without sufficient cause.”

“It is in the nature of a writ of error, to examine the legality of the commitment,” he wrote as part of an 1830 Supreme Court opinion.

Mr. Thomas was arrested on Aug. 12 on a warrant appearing to be issued by Lisbon Town Court but signed by a state trooper, according to the petition.

The document, titled “warrant of arrest” and signed by Trooper Jeffrey C. Smith Jr., was based on a felony complaint, also compiled by Mr. Smith. The felony complaint describes Mr. Smith conducting a traffic stop on Town Line Road in Lisbon, where he found Mr. Thomas and “telephonically made contact with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department” in Texas.

The felony complaint, which was notarized by Lisbon Town Justice Philip D. Fonda, alleges Mr. Thomas was wanted by the Texas department for a felony drug charge related to possessing methamphetamine. Mr. Smith described Mr. Thomas as a “fugitive from justice” and wrote he was informed that the state of Texas would extradite Mr. Thomas.

Justice Fonda signed the securing order to have Mr. Thomas held in county jail without bail. The petition disputes several components of the process used to detain Mr. Thomas, who remained incarcerated until Thursday, according to jail staff.

The petition reads in part: “Trooper Smith apparently relied on a telephone conversation with an unnamed person or persons” from the Texas agency, and “what appear to be two copies of the same arrest warrant” signed by a Texas “deputy” — but whether a sheriff’s deputy or deputy court clerk is unclear.

No accusatory instrument from Texas and no sworn statement or pleading from anyone in Texas was included with the supporting paperwork, the petition argues. It further argues that the New York felony complaint is “based exclusively on hearsay” and includes the word “methamphetamine,” which is not contained in any documentation from Texas.

The New York warrant was not signed by a judge, and the petition cites state Criminal Procedure Law, which specifies arrest warrants “must be subscribed by the issuing judge.”

“The warrant is defective on this basis alone,” the petition reads.

The case was assigned to Judge Mary M. Farley, who initially set a virtual hearing for Friday afternoon.

As the administrator of county jail, the Sheriff’s Office is directly addressed in the petition. County Attorney Stephen D. Button, on behalf of Sheriff Brooks J. Bigwarfe, responded to Judge Farley’s scheduling, writing the petition materials had been reviewed and the Sheriff’s Office consented to Mr. Thomas’ release “due to the noted deficiencies in the underlying paperwork.”

Without objection from the Sheriff’s Office, Judge Farley issued a judgment Thursday, ordering the writ of habeas corpus to be granted and Mr. Thomas to be released.

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