PRESS RELEASE: Wisconsin Alicia Beltran Case Federal District Court Avoids Ruling on Constitutionality

September 30, 2014

CONTACT: Lynn M. Paltrow, JD
(212) 255-9252

Today the Eastern District of Wisconsin federal court dismissed as moot a petition filed by Alicia Beltran challenging her detention under a provision of the Wisconsin Children's Code that allows the State to take women into custody from the earliest stages of pregnancy. Ms. Beltran challenged her detention under the Wisconsin law that permitted her arrest, detention, and involuntary in-patient medical treatment based upon the unproven charge that she "habitually lacked self-control in the use of alcohol or controlled substances."

The matter began when Alicia Beltran, a 28-year-old pregnant woman, sought early prenatal care and confided in health care workers about prior use of painkillers and her efforts to end that use on her own. Instead of commending Ms. Beltran for her progress, her medical practitioners reported her to the Department of Human Services, as a result of which she was arrested on July 18, 2013 by Wisconsin law enforcement officials. Ms. Beltran was forcibly taken into custody when she was 14 weeks pregnant, put into handcuffs and shackles, and brought to a court hearing. Although a lawyer had already been appointed to represent her fetus, Ms. Beltran had no right to counsel -- and therefore had no attorney -- at the court appearance which resulted in her long-term detention. Without testimony from any medical expert or without giving Ms. Beltran any chance to challenge any allegations against her, a family court referee ordered Ms. Beltran to be detained at an inpatient drug treatment program two hours from her home and from her prenatal care provider.

Following Ms. Beltran's federal court habeas filing and national press attention to the case, the state permitted Ms. Beltran to leave in-patient treatment and, subsequently, the State dropped the petition against Ms. Beltran. By that time, however, Ms. Beltran had been detained against her wishes far from family for more than 70 days. It was on the ground that Ms. Beltran had eventually been released and the charges against her dropped that the federal court today dismissed the case as moot.

The court ruling today acknowledged that "if Beltran's allegations are true, what happened to her is extremely disturbing." Nevertheless, the Court dismissed the case without addressing Ms. Beltran's factual allegations or resolving the constitutionality of the underlying Wisconsin law. The Court concluded that it was not permitted to reach these issues because the Court no longer had the power to grant Ms. Beltran the specific relief of freeing her from detention.

"We are disappointed that the Court refused to address the constitutionality of the law, and instead avoided reaching a decision about a statute that permits the State to rip pregnant women from their homes, endangering them and their future children." said Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of Pregnancy Justice and a member of Ms. Beltran's legal team. She added that "the law does not even give pregnant women the right to counsel at the initial stages of the proceedings against them and most of the women who are detained while pregnant will have difficulty finding lawyers able to bring constitutional claims."

The Court suggested, however, that another civil rights action, potentially representing a class of women brought within the ambit of the law, might not present the same mootness issues. Ms. Beltran is currently considering her legal options in the wake of the decision.