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Curtis L. Watson v. United States Parole Commission

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


June 26, 2012

CURTIS L. WATSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES PAROLE COMMISSION, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on defendant's motion to dismiss. For the reasons discussed below, the motion will be granted.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

In 1978, in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, plaintiff was sentenced to an aggregate term of 30 years to life imprisonment. *fn2 See Compl. at 1. While in the District of Columbia's custody and serving his sentence at its Lorton Reformatory, on August 30, 1988, plaintiff "walked away from a Work Release program and . . . remained on escape status until [October 30, 1995] when he was arrested in Arizona." Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem."), Ex. E (Hearing Summary dated October 21, 2011) at 3. Plaintiff was convicted of escape and on March 15, 1996, he was sentenced to a 12-month term of imprisonment pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 751 to be served consecutively to the Superior Court sentence. See Compl., Ex. (Order, United States v. Watson, No. 1:88cr201 (E.D. Va. Dec. 28, 2007)) at 1.

Plaintiff's first parole hearing took place in 2004. Compl. at 3. As of November 8, 2004, he had been incarcerated for 316 months. See id., Ex. (Notice of Action dated November 16, 2004) at 1. The United States Parole Commission ("Commission") denied parole, see id., noting that an upward departure from the applicable parole guidelines was "warranted because . . . [plaintiff had] a 12-month consecutive term to follow [his] current sentence." Id. After a reconsideration hearing in October 2007, plaintiff ostensibly had been granted "[p]arole effective December 9, 2007 after service of 353 months to the consecutive 12 month term." Id., Ex. (Notice of Action dated November 20, 2007) at 1. The Commission, however, voided its decision because "[t]he Bureau of Prisons . . . determined that [plaintiff was] not eligible for parole until [April] 27, 2012." *fn3 Id., Ex. (Notice of Action dated December 18, 2007) at 1. A hearing was to be scheduled within nine months of petitioner's new parole eligibility date. Id.

Plaintiff's next parole hearing occurred on October 21, 2011. Def.'s Mem., Ex. E (Hearing Summary dated October 21, 2011) at 1. According to the Commission, as of October 30, 2011, plaintiff had been incarcerated for only 314 months. See Compl., Ex. (Notice of Action dated November 30, 2011) at 1. The Commission again denied parole, and continued the matter for another three years, to October 2014. Id.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's Claims

It is no easy task to decipher the claims plaintiff presents. The Court begins with plaintiff's assertion that he has "been resentenced by the whims of a rogue agency." Compl. at 4. The introductory statement to his complaint reads:

PETITONER [sic] CHALLENGES AS UNCONSTITUTIONAL THE AUTHORITY OF THE UNITED STATES PAROLE COMMISSION TO GRANT OR DENY PAROLE TO THIS OLD LAW D.C. PRISONER WHEN THE D.C. SENTENCE HAS BEEN SERVED IN ITS ENTIRETY.

Id. at 1 (emphasis in original). The Court interprets this statement as a challenge to the Commission's authority to deny him parole and as a claim that he has served his entire Superior Court-imposed aggregate sentence. He thus contends, apparently, that his continued custody is unlawful and presumably he demands his immediate release.

In addition, plaintiff makes a passing reference, see Compl. at 3, to Sellmon v. Reilly, 551 F. Supp. 2d 66 (D.D.C. 2008), presumably for the purpose of alleging "that [the Commission] retroactively applied its own parole guidelines and practices so as to significantly increase the risk that [he] would serve [a] longer term [ ] of incarceration," id. at 68. Plaintiff further alleges that Sellmon in effect "voided all parole hearings from 2000 to 2008," and he demands a new parole hearing on this basis. See Compl. at 3 (emphasis in original). He also appears to argue that his 2011 parole hearing was invalid not only because it was deemed an initial hearing (notwithstanding prior parole hearings in 2004 and 2007), but also because the Commission applied the wrong parole regulations to his case. See id. at 3-4. Plaintiff demands "injunctive relief to stop this conduct." Id. at 4.

B. The Commission Is Authorized to Deny Plaintiff Parole

According to plaintiff, the Commission lacks the authority to deny him parole, see Compl. at 1, and in effect it has "resentenced" him, id. at 4. Plaintiff is mistaken.

It is well settled that the Commission "has had jurisdiction over parole matters of District of Columbia felons since August 1998." Ray v. U.S. Parole Comm'n, No. 11-2127, 2012 WL 252238, at *2 (D.D.C. Jan. 26, 2012) (citations omitted); see Franklin v. District of Columbia, 163 F.3d 625, 632 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (discussing the transfer of parole jurisdiction for District of Columbia prisoners to the Commission). It may grant, deny, or revoke parole, and it may impose or modify conditions of parole for any felon who is eligible for parole or reparole under District of Columbia law. See D.C. Code § 24-131(a). The statutes under which the Commission operates "govern the execution of a judicially imposed sentence." Moore v. U.S. Parole Comm'n, No. 10-1987, 2011 WL 550003, at *1 (D.D.C. Feb. 10, 2011). The Commission is not a court; it merely exercises administrative authority over the execution of a sentence. See Maddox v. Elzie, 238 F.3d 437, 445 (D.C. Cir. 2001). Its actions neither usurp the authority of the sentencing court nor violate the separation of powers doctrine. See, e.g., Monroe v. District of Columbia, No. 12-0558, 2012 WL 1229333, at *1 (D.D.C. Apr. 11, 2012).

C. The Relief Plaintiff Demands Sounds in Habeas

Plaintiff challenges the calculation of his sentence and claims to have served his Superior Court sentence in full. See Compl. at 1-2; see also "Plaintiff['s] . . . Formal Request to be Transferred to the Jurisdiction of this Court for Consideration of Release Having Served the D.C. and Federal Sentences" [Dkt. #8] at 1-2.

Where, as here, a prisoner "challeng[es] the very fact or duration of his physical imprisonment, and the relief he seeks is a determination that he is entitled to immediate release or a speedier release from that imprisonment, his sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas corpus." Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973); see Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S. 749, 750 (2004) (per curiam) ("Challenges to the validity of any confinement or to particulars affecting its duration are the province of habeas corpus."). Therefore, a prisoner cannot bring a civil action seeking a declaratory judgment in order to obtain his release. See LoBue v. Christopher, 82 F.3d 1081, 1082 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (concluding that plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of federal extradition statutes could do so through a petition for writ of habeas corpus, not through a civil action for declaratory and injunctive relief); Monk v. Sec'y of the Navy, 793 F.2d 364, 366 (D.C. Cir. 1986) (concluding that service member could not challenge conviction by court martial through a civil action seeking declaratory judgment); Smocks v. United States, No. 10-0361, 2010 WL 1780270, at *1 (D.D.C. May 3, 2010) (concluding that prisoner must proceed by means of a habeas petition, not a complaint under the Declaratory Judgment Act, to challenge the constitutionality of certain provisions of federal law pertaining to his ability to seek release from custody).

Furthermore, habeas actions are subject to jurisdictional and statutory limitations. See Braden v. 30th Judicial Cir. Ct. of Ky., 410 U.S. 484 (1973). One such limitation is the requirement that a habeas corpus action be brought against the plaintiff's warden. Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 542 U.S. 426, 434-35 (2004); Blair-Bey v. Quick, 151 F.3d 1036, 1039 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (citing Chatman-Bey v. Thornburgh, 864 F.2d 804, 810 (D.C. Cir. 1988)). Moreover, this district court cannot "entertain a habeas petition involving present physical custody unless the [plaintiff's] custodian is within its territorial jurisdiction."*fn4 Stokes v. U.S. Parole Comm'n, 374 F.3d 1235, 1239 (D.C. Cir. 2004).

The relief that plaintiff demands sounds in habeas and therefore is not available by means of a civil action seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. Nor is this district court the proper forum for adjudication of plaintiff's habeas claim.

D. The Commission Properly Applied Its 2000 Guidelines

Plaintiff objects to the Commission's decisions to treat the October 21, 2011 parole hearing as an initial hearing and to apply its own parole guidelines. See Compl. at 3. Plaintiff does not articulate, nor has the Court identified, a statutory or constitutional violation with regard to the Commission's acknowledgement of an apparent error in the calculation of plaintiff's parole eligibility date. The 2004 and 2007 hearings occurred prematurely according to the BOP's calculation of plaintiff's sentence, and it follows that the Commission conducted the October 21, 2011 hearing as an initial hearing in anticipation of plaintiff's correct parole eligibility date, April 27, 2012.

Turning to the complaint's reference to Sellmon, the Court presumes that plaintiff raises an ex post facto claim that the Commission "is applying later-adopted laws that disadvantage him instead of the laws that were in effect at the time he committed the offenses." Austin v. Reilly, 606 F. Supp. 2d 4, 9 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Weaver v. Graham, 450 U.S. 24, 30 (1981)). In the parole context, plaintiff could argue that the retroactive application of the Commission's own guidelines, see 28 C.F.R. § 2.80, rather than the regulations promulgated by the former District of Columbia Board of Parole in 1987, "creates 'a significant risk' of a 'longer period of incarceration than under the earlier rule.'" Sellmon, 551 F. Supp.2d at 84 (quoting Garner v. Jones, 529 U.S. 244, 255 (2000)). But this claim is meritless.

Nothing in the record of this case suggests that the former Parole Board's regulations apply to plaintiff. "[A] plaintiff may invoke ex post facto protection only on the basis of the parole regime that was in effect at the time he committed his offense[s]." Austin, 606 F. Supp. 2d at 7-8 (citation omitted). Plaintiff committed his offenses in or about 1976, see Watson, 508

A.2d at 76, years before the Parole Board promulgated the regulations at issue in Sellmon. At the time plaintiff committed the offenses for which he now is serving his sentence, "parole eligibility was determined by a D.C. Parole Board that operated with nearly complete discretion," Wilson v. Fulwood, 772 F. Supp. 2d 246, 252 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Austin, 606 F. Supp. 2d at 8), subject only to regulations promulgated by the Parole Board in 1972, see id. Given the "totally unfettered" discretion under which the Parole Board operated in those days, see Sellmon v. Reilly, 561 F. Supp. 2d 46, 50 (D.D.C. 2008), the Court cannot conclude that plaintiff would have fared better under a prior regime.

Accordingly, the Court will grant defendant's motion to dismiss. An Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.


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