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CULTER v. U.S.

January 24, 2003

SHAWNA LYN CULTER, PETITIONER,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, RESPONDENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Relying on a long-standing policy of the Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") whereby the agency honored judicial recommendations regarding the placement of Zone C offenders, this Court sentenced Shawna Culter to 12 months imprisonment on March 28, 2002, and strongly recommended that she be placed in a Community Corrections Center ("CCC" or "halfway house"). As it had assured the Court that it would, BOP followed this recommendation, and on June 10, 2002, petitioner began serving her sentence at the Fairview CCC in Washington, D.C. As of December 16, 2002, however, BOP's policy abruptly changed. Based on a memorandum prepared by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel on behalf of Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, BOP announced that it could no longer use CCCs as a substitute for imprisonment. This policy was to be applied prospectively, with one significant exception: inmates housed in CCCs who, as of December 16, 2002, had more than 150 days remaining on their sentences would be transferred to prisons. On that date, petitioner had 174 days left to serve. Accordingly, on December 23, BOP notified her that she would be moved out of the halfway house and into a federal prison within 30 days — that is, on or before January 23, 2002.

Petitioner has now brought a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and 2255 asking that the Court vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence that it imposed on March 28. While the government persuasively argues that the Court cannot grant the specific relief requested, the Court is persuaded that on the unique and compelling facts of this case, principles of equitable estoppel and due process preclude BOP from relying on its new policy to remove petitioner from her current placement. The Court will therefore grant petitioner's motion, and enter an order enjoining BOP from transferring her from Fairview on the basis of the newly-announced DOJ policy regarding BOP's lack of authority to substitute halfway house placement for imprisonment.

BACKGROUND

On January 8, 2002, petitioner pleaded guilty to one count of uttering a forged security in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 513(a). All parties agreed with the presentence report's determination that her adjusted offense level was 10 and her criminal history category was III. As a result, petitioner fell within "Zone C" of the Sentencing Guidelines and faced a sentencing range of 10-16 months. Zone C guideline ranges must be satisfied either by a "sentence of imprisonment" or by a "sentence of imprisonment that includes a term of supervised release with a condition that substitutes community confinement or home detention . . . provided that at least one-half of the minimum term is satisfied by imprisonment." 2002 U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual ("USSG") § 5C.1.1(d). At sentencing, petitioner sought a downward departure to Zone B, which would have allowed for a sentence of home detention. USSG § 5C1.1(c)(3). (Def.'s Mot. for Downward Departure, 3/20/02, at 16.)

Although the Court denied her departure request, the Court took pains to craft a sentence that would allow petitioner to continue working, and thus meet her restitution obligations, and to maintain her community contacts, which had become a source of increased stability in her life and had contributed much to her ongoing rehabilitation. Petitioner, who at a young age was sexually abused by her father, has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, which may have played a role in her crimes. Untreated in the past, the illness caused her to experience debilitating, even suicidal, depression, often followed by periods of manic behavior. However, since November 2000, she had been taking medication to treat this condition and was participating in weekly counseling sessions with Janice Rogers of Our Place, D.C., a local resource and support center for women returning to the community after periods of incarceration. Moreover, by the time of her sentencing, petitioner had begun working as a member relations specialist at CAPCON Library Network. She had been saving some of her salary from this position in order to pay restitution to the former employer whom she had defrauded. Moreover, she had become an active member of the Foundry United Methodist Church, and in that capacity, she was serving as a mentor to younger members and participating in various charitable projects.

Indeed, all indications were that petitioner had begun the process of turning her life around. Recognizing and seeking to encourage these positive trends, the Court sought to fashion a sentence that would punish petitioner for her offense without interrupting the admirable strides she had made to rehabilitate herself. The Court believed that it was vital for petitioner to continue her participation in church activities, her therapy, and her paid employment. It was hoped that doing so would assist her reintegration into law-abiding society, her mental health recovery, and her ability to meet her restitution obligations. The Court decided that the best way to achieve these ends was for her to be committed to BOP for 12 months with the understanding that she would serve this sentence in a local halfway house. (Tr. of Sent., 3/28/02, at 28 ("It is expected that she will be able to from a halfway house continue with her therapy, to be released to work and to participate in church activities."), 30 ("I expect that this period of a year in the halfway house . . . will give you ample opportunity both to pay back the money you owe and to repair your family relationships.").) Moreover, the Court's decision to order $100 a month in restitution was explicitly "premised on the Court's recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons that [petitioner] not be required to pay 25 percent of her income to the halfway house." If this was not to be followed, the Court observed, "I would perhaps have to reconsider the $100 a month restitution." (Id. at 28-29.) With this understanding that petitioner would be placed in a halfway house, the Court had no need to downwardly depart so as to remove petitioner from Zone C.

As is clear from the sentencing proceedings, halfway house placement was central to the Court's overall sentencing objectives. In this respect, the Court relied on BOP's long-standing practice of following a judicial recommendation that a Zone C offender serve her full sentence in a CCC. This reliance was far from fanciful, but was in fact induced by the government's own policies and statements, which gave the Court every reason to expect that its placement recommendation would be carried out. There is no dispute that at the time petitioner was sentenced, BOP had consistently construed the phrase "sentence of imprisonment" in USSG § 5C1.1(d) to include confinement in a halfway house. This interpretation, and the inmate designation policies that went along with it, date back to the very beginning of the Sentencing Guidelines. Indeed, since the Guidelines took effect in 1987, BOP has never interpreted them to preclude halfway house designation as a means to satisfy a "sentence of imprisonment."*fn1 Across the country, the agency's statements and its actions told judges that if they recommended CCC placement for a Zone C offender such as Shawna Culter, those recommendations would generally be followed.

Consistent with this understanding of BOP's authority, U.S. Attorney's offices nationwide have routinely consented to, or at least and acquiesced in, such placements. Indeed, the Probation Office in this jurisdiction has informed the Court that since January 1, 1999, BOP has designated 93 Zone B and C offenders to serve "a sentence of imprisonment" under USSG § 5C1.1(c)-(d) in CCCs, based on judicial recommendations for such placement. The government's acquiesce has not merely been passive. Federal prosecutors have even entered into plea agreements not to oppose halfway house placement for Zone C, and even Zone D, offenders. See Attach. A, ¶ 8(g).

These practices were entirely routine, and were all but taken for granted by all participants: the BOP, the Probation Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the defense bar, and the judiciary. There is no indication that the government in this jurisdiction has ever previously objected to, or disputed the legality of, a court's recommendation of halfway house placement for a Zone C offender, and there is no indication that the DOJ had ever suggested, prior to December 2002, that BOP lacked the legal authority to follow through with such a designation. The Court was not then and, is not now, aware of any previous case — in this district or elsewhere — where BOP's designation authority had been challenged by the government. Certainly, no objection was offered at the time of sentencing in this case. As such, the idea that petitioner could not have served her full sentence in a halfway house was simply not a possibility at the time that she was sentenced. Indeed, at oral argument, the government agreed that both petitioner and the Court had every right to expect that the Court's request for CCC placement would be followed and that petitioner would be permitted to serve out her sentence in a halfway house. (Oral Argument Tr., 1/21/03, at 34 ("I don't think this Court could have known that at the time it sentenced the defendant the Bureau of Prisons would not honor its recommendation."), 36 ("It was a reasonable expectation at that time.").)

But there is more. In crafting a sentence that (as noted above) was anchored to the expectation that petitioner would be designated to a CCC, the Court relied not merely on BOP's past practices but on specific representations from that agency. Prior to sentencing, the Court spoke to representatives from the Probation Office in an effort to determine whether BOP would honor the Court's recommendation. Based on the Probation Office's conversations with various BOP personnel, including a Community Corrections Manager ("CCM"), the Court was assured both that space was available in a local halfway house and that petitioner could and would be designated to serve her sentence at that location if the Court elected to so recommend. This is why, at the end of the sentencing hearing, the Court engaged in a colloquy with the probation officer, in which the officer again informed the Court that petitioner would be able to self-surrender to the halfway house in four to six weeks "since we do have bed space." (Tr. of Sent., 3/28/02, at 31.) Had the Court not received such assurances, it would have viewed its overall sentencing options in a far different light.

In short, the Court's sentence was premised on an explicit understanding of where petitioner would serve her time that was the product not merely of unchallenged and longstanding government practices, but that was also firmly rooted in the BOP's representations that it both had the authority and the willingness to abide by the Court's recommendation in this case.

And BOP did abide. On June 10, 2002, petitioner began serving her 12-month sentence at the Fairview CCC in Washington, D.C. Everything that she has done since reporting there has only confirmed the Court's belief that halfway house placement was the best available sentencing option for her. Indeed, it is clear from the numerous letters that the Court has received, including those from her employers and pastor, that Shawna Culter's rehabilitation has continued, and even accelerated, exactly as the Court had hoped. Indeed, her employer CAPCON was so impressed with her talents and abilities that soon after sentencing she was elevated to full-time status, and as her supervisor has indicated, petitioner has been assuming more responsibilities with great success and has become a valued member of the organization's staff. (Letter from Susan Eason, 12/30/02.)

In addition to offering her skills and stability, this job has provided petitioner with a steady income, which she has used to make restitution in excess of her court-imposed monthly obligations. Moreover, according to her pastor, petitioner has continued her active membership in the Foundry United Methodist Church, where she has developed a caring and supportive community that has nurtured her emotional and spiritual growth. (Letter from Dean Snyder, 12/30/02.) She has also continued with her medication and therapy, and shows continued improvement in her ...


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