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Theodore Willis v. R. Grounds

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


September 30, 2011

THEODORE WILLIS,
PETITIONER,
v.
R. GROUNDS, RESPONDENT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge

Petitioner, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, has filed this Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 302.

Petitioner, who is serving an indeterminate life sentence for murder, seeks habeas relief from a prison disciplinary hearing in which he was found guilty of possessing a weapon and a cell phone. Petitioner lost 360 days of good-time credits, and fears this conviction will hinder his eligibility for parole.

Petitioner maintains his innocence, that the contraband belonged to his cellmate, and argues that because procedures used at his disciplinary hearing violated his due process rights, the conviction should be expunged and his good-time credits should be restored. Presently before the Court is the Respondent's Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a cognizable claim.

On August 31, 2011, the magistrate judge made findings recommending that Respondent's Motion be denied. Those Findings and Recommendations were served on all parties and contained notice that any Objections to the Findings and Recommendations were to be filed within fourteen (14) days. Respondent has filed Objections to the Findings and Recommendations.

In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C) and Local Rule 304, this Court has conducted a de novo review of this case. Having carefully reviewed the entire file, the Court rejects the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations that Respondent's Motion to Dismiss should be denied. Under the standards set forth in Bostic and Ramirez, discussed herein, Petitioner has failed to state a cognizable claim for federal habeas relief because he has not demonstrated that success on his claim is likely to accelerate his eligibility for parole, or will necessarily shorten his sentence. Bostic v. Carlson, 884 F.2d 1267 (9th Cir. 1989); Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850 (9th Cir. 2003). Therefore, Respondent's Motion to Dismiss should be granted.

I. LEGAL STANDARD

This Court has jurisdiction to consider habeas petitions where the petitioner is "in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court" and alleges that "he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States."

28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). A writ of habeas corpus is not limited to claims seeking immediate release from unlawful confinement, but rather is also available to attack future confinement and obtain future releases. See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 487, 93 S. Ct. 1827, 1835 (1973).

In Preiser, a prisoner sought restoration of so-called "good-time credits." Id. Such credits are earned by prisoners for good behavior, and potentially have the effect of shortening a prisoner's duration of confinement. Preiser held that the petitioner's habeas claims seeking restoration of good-time credits were proper even though restoration of those credits would merely shorten the length of confinement. The Supreme Court reasoned that such claims were still "within the core of habeas corpus in attacking the very duration of their physical confinement." Preiser, 411 U.S. at 487-88.

Citing Preiser, the Ninth Circuit, in Bostic, Ramirez, and Docken, addressed the boundaries of habeas jurisdiction where prisoners allege violations that potentially impact the duration of their confinement. Bostic v. Carlson, 884 F.2d 1267 (9th Cir. 1989); Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850 (9th Cir. 2003); Docken v. Chase, 393 F.3d 1024 (9th Cir. 2004).

In Bostic, the court reviewed a prisoner's claim seeking restoration of good-time credits and expungement of his disciplinary conviction. The court held that habeas corpus jurisdiction exists when a petitioner seeks expungement of a disciplinary finding from his record if expungement is likely to accelerate the prisoner's eligibility for parole. Bostic, 884 F.2d 1267 at 1269 (emphasis added). The court, however, summarily affirmed the district court's grant of dismissal for failing to state a claim without addressing whether the expungement of petitioner's disciplinary convictions would likely accelerate his particular eligibility for parole.

In Ramirez, a prisoner filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit alleging due process violations regarding his prison disciplinary hearing and subsequent conviction. Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 853. Among other claims, Petitioner sought expungement of his disciplinary record. At issue was whether a § 1983 action or a habeas petition was the proper course of action for a prisoner making such a challenge. The court distinguished between those two remedial avenues, stating that "[s]uits challenging the validity of the prisoner's continued incarceration lie within 'the heart of habeas corpus,' whereas 'a § 1983 action is a proper remedy for a state prisoner who is making a constitutional challenge to the conditions of his prison life, but not to the fact or length of his custody.'" Id. at 856 (citing Preiser, 411 U.S. at 498-99). Ramirez then held that "habeas jurisdiction is absent, and a § 1983 action proper, where a successful challenge to a prison condition will not necessarily shorten the prisoner's sentence." Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 859 (emphasis added).

Under the facts of the case, the court stated petitioner's § 1983 suit was proper, because even "if [his challenge was] successful, Ramirez will not necessarily shorten the length of his confinement because there has been no showing by the State that the expungement Ramirez seeks is likely to accelerate his eligibility for parole." Id. at 859.

Finally, in Docken, a petitioner argued that a parole board violated his constitutional rights when it changed the time between his parole reviews from one to five years. Docken, 393 F.3d at 1026. The court stated that it was possible but not certain that the change in frequency of review could impact the duration of his confinement, especially given the petitioner's designation as a "dangerous offender." Id. at 1031. In defining its guiding principle, the court determined that to find a claim "likely" to accelerate a prisoner's eligibility for parole under Bostic, a "sufficient nexus" between the claim and the length of imprisonment must be found "so as to implicate but not fall squarely within, the core challenges identified by the Preiser Court." Id.; Preiser, 411 U.S. at 487; Bostic, 884 F.2d at 1269. In finding the petitioner's claim viable, the court adopted the following rule:

We therefore hold that when prison inmates seek only equitable relief in challenging aspects of their parole review that, so long as they prevail, could potentially affect the duration of their confinement, such relief is available under the federal habeas statute.

Docken, 393 F.3d at 1031 (emphasis contained within opinion).

The Ninth Circuit, then, has created three arguably different standards regarding the availability of federal habeas review for expungement of disciplinary convictions. Under Bostic, habeas jurisdiction is proper if expungement of a disciplinary conviction is "likely to accelerate the prisoner's eligibility for parole." Bostic, 884 F.2d at 1269. Under Ramirez, habeas is absent "where a successful challenge to a prison condition will not necessarily shorten the prisoner's sentence." Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 859. Finally, under Docken, habeas jurisdiction is proper when a prisoner challenges aspects of his parole review that "could potentially affect the duration of [his] confinement." Docken, 393 F.3d at 1031.

The holdings have led to inconsistency among district courts addressing the existence of federal habeas jurisdiction in prisoner claims seeking expungement of prison disciplinary convictions.*fn1

In particular, Docken appears to create a lower threshold for establishing the existence of federal habeas jurisdiction in some instances as opposed to the standards articulated in Bostic and Ramirez.

Some courts, for example, have applied the Docken standard to cases like the instant case, where a petitioner seeks expungement alleging that a procedure used during a disciplinary hearing violated his due process rights. See supra, n.1. In these cases, habeas jurisdiction has been found to exist because expungement of a disciplinary conviction could potentially affect the duration of a prisoner's confinement. Indeed, because parole review panels consider prison conduct as a factor in determining parole eligibility, an expungement of a prisoner's disciplinary record could potentially affect his eligibility for parole, and therefore could potentially affect the duration of his confinement.

The Docken standard for establishing federal habeas jurisdiction, however, is arguably limited to petitioners "challenging aspects of [] parole review", such as the timing between parole hearings, and not direct challenges to disciplinary convictions. Docken, 393 F.3d at 1031 (timing between parole hearings is "even more related to the duration of [] confinement than eligibility for parole in the abstract"). Docken specifically dealt with a prisoner's claim with respect to the length of time between parole hearings, whereas in Ramirez and Bostic, the petitioners attacked the disciplinary hearings themselves and the resulting convictions. Additionally, Docken distinguished Ramirez, stating "[u]nlike this case, Ramirez concerned a challenge to internal disciplinary procedures and administrative segregation that resulted from it. Ramirez's suit did not deal with the fact or duration of his confinement." Docken, 393 F.3d at 1030 n.4.

Under this reasoning, which this Court hereby adopts, the Ramirez and Bostic standards apply to this case, while Docken does not, because petitioner is attacking the disciplinary procedures and the resulting conviction, not aspects of parole review.

II. HABEAS JURISDICTION TO REVIEW PETITIONER'S DISCIPLINARY CONVICTION

Bostic established federal jurisdiction to review expungements where it is likely to accelerate eligibility for parole. Bostic, 884 F.2d at 1269. Although a disciplinary conviction will likely be an important consideration to any parole board determination of eligibility, it cannot be said that the conviction would likely accelerate eligibility, because many factors go into determining whether a prisoner is eligible for parole.

See Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15 § 2402(a) (listing eligibility factors considered by parole boards); see also Calderon-Silva, 2010 WL 5392895, at *3 ("[a]lthough a disciplinary conviction may not help an inmate who is seeking release on parole, it is only one of a myriad of considerations relevant to a parole decision"). For example, parole board panels consider prisoner's social history; past and present mental state; past criminal history, including involvement in other criminal misconduct which is reliably documented; the base and other commitment offenses, including behavior before, during and after the crime; past and present attitude toward the crime; any conditions of treatment or control, including the use of special conditions under which the prisoner may safely be released to the community.

Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15 § 2402(b). Panels also consider previous record of violence, social history, sexual offenses, psychological factors, and institutional behavior. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15 § 2402(c). The ultimate decision rests on whether "the prisoner will pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2402(a).

Similarly, under Ramirez, even if petitioner is successful on the merits of his challenge to his disciplinary conviction, expungement might, but would "not necessarily shorten" his sentence. Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 859. The presence of one negative factor may or may not foreclose a favorable parole determination.

The impact of expunging Petitioner's disciplinary conviction on parole eligibility, therefore, is simply too speculative to hold federal habeas jurisdiction exists. Expungement would not necessarily shorten his sentence, nor can it be said to be likely to accelerate his eligibility for parole.

United States Supreme Court precedent provides additional support for this analysis. In Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472; 115 S. Ct. 2293 (1995), a prisoner brought forth a claim arguing that a Hawaii prison regulation and the Due Process Clause afforded the prisoner a protected liberty interest such that a disciplinary sentence of 30 days segregation was unconstitutional. In finding the 30-day punishment itself constitutional, the court also addressed the impact of the conviction on his parole eligibility in the future:

Nor does [Petitioner's] situation present a case where the State's action will inevitably affect the duration of his sentence. Nothing in Hawaii's code requires the parole board to deny parole in the face of a misconduct record or to grant parole in its absence, Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 353-68, 353-69 (1985), even though misconduct is by regulation a relevant consideration, Haw. Admin. Rule § 23-700-33(b) (effective Aug. 1992). The decision to release a prisoner rests on a myriad of considerations. And, the prisoner is afforded procedural protection at his parole hearing in order to explain the circumstances behind his misconduct record.

Haw. Admin. Rule §§ 23-700-31(a), 23-700-35(c), 23-700-36 (1983). The chance that a finding of misconduct will alter the balance is simply too attenuated to invoke the procedural guarantees of the Due Process Clause.

Id. at 487 (emphasis added); see also Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 14, 118 S. Ct. 978, 986 (1998) (parole revocation impacting future parole proceedings is only a "possibility rather than certainty or even a probability" and is "simply one factor, among many, that may be considered by the parole authority in determining whether there is a substantial risk that the parole candidate will not conform to reasonable conditions of parole"); Wilson v. Terhune, 319 F.3d 477, 480-481 (9th Cir. 2003) (adopting Spencer stating "[b]ecause the decision whether to grant parole is left to the judgment of the Board of Prison terms, Cal. Code Regs. Tit. 15 § 2402, the likelihood of delayed or denied parole is a type of non-statutory consequence dependant on discretionary decisions that is insufficient to apply the presumption of collateral consequences").

As the Supreme Court has recognized, parole determinations can rest on any number of different factors.

Consequently, federal habeas jurisdiction to review Petitioner's claim for expungement is absent under the facts of this case.

III. FEDERAL HABEAS JURISDICTION TO REVIEW PETITIONER'S CLAIM FOR RESTORATION OF GOOD TIME CREDITS

Petitioner is serving an indeterminate life sentence with the possibility of parole. He lost 360 days of good-time credits as a result of his disciplinary conviction. The Preiser Court held that a prisoner may seek federal habeas relief from a loss of good-time credit where restoration of those credits would result in his immediate release from prison or in shortening the length of his confinement. Preiser, supra, 411 U.S. at 487.

Under Cal. Code Regs tit. 15, § 2400, good-time credits in Petitioner's case would only serve to reduce his minimum eligible parole date. Petitioner, however, had already passed his minimum eligible parole date as of the time of his disciplinary conviction. Thus, his good-time credits are meaningless to an extent because the credits can no longer reduce his minimum eligible parole date.

See e.g., Thomas v. Wong, 2010 WL 1233909 at *3-4 (N.D. Cal. 2010) (claim of petitioner, an indeterminate-sentenced inmate who challenged loss of good time credit, not cognizable on federal habeas review because claim did not inevitably effect fact or length of confinement); Norman v. Salazar, 2010 WL 2197541 at *2-3 (C.D. Cal. 2010) (petitioner's claim seeking restoration of good-time credit not cognizable on federal habeas review; punishment had no bearing on the fact or duration of petitioner's confinement because petitioner was serving indeterminate life sentence and minimum eligible parole date had passed); Calderon-Silva v. Uribe, 2010 WL 5392895 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 31, 2010) (same).

California, however, also has a separate "post-conviction credit" scheme by which prisoners earn credits that effectively reduce a prisoner's period of confinement. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2400 ("[t]he standards for the department's action in reducing the minimum eligible parole date and the standards for the board's decision whether to reduce the period of confinement are different"). Post-conviction credits are not granted, however, until a reviewing parole board establishes a base level of confinement. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2400. And even then, whether and when a prisoner may earn credits to reduce his term of confinement is within the discretion of the board. Id. Here, the record does not establish that a parole board has yet established Petitioner's period of confinement.

The impact of Petitioner's loss of good-time credit on shortening his term of confinement, therefore, is also too speculative. Not only is the loss of credits largely meaningless in terms of reducing his minimum eligible parole date, but whether or when these credits would be applied to impact Petitioner's period of confinement is a decision within the sole discretion of a reviewing parole board. Thus, Petitioner's claim seeking restoration of good-time credits under the facts of this case is not cognizable for federal habeas review.

IV. CONCLUSION

This Court finds that federal habeas jurisdiction is not available for relief under the facts of this case. The likely impact of expunging Petitioner's disciplinary conviction on Petitioner's future parole eligibility is too speculative given the myriad of factors considered by a reviewing parole board. Additionally, Petitioner's good-time credit reduction cannot impact his minimum eligible parole date because that date has already passed. Whether these credits will be meaningful to his period of confinement at a future time is pure speculation as all decisions regarding credits are within the sole discretion of a reviewing parole board. Thus, Petitioner's disciplinary record and loss of good-time credits do not sufficiently impact Petitioner's eligibility for parole or the duration of his confinement to be eligible for federal habeas review.

Given the foregoing, then, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:

1. The Findings and Recommendations, filed August 31,2011, are REJECTED;

2. Respondent's September 23, 2010 Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED;

3. Petitioner's motion for a 45-day extension of time to further respond to Respondent's objections, ECF No. 22, is DENIED since any further input from Petitioner will not change the analysis set forth above.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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