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Hill v. United States Parole Commission

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 2, 2017

ARNOLD J. HILL, Plaintiff,


          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

         Having spent the last thirty years locked up for strangling an ex-girlfriend, Plaintiff Arnold Hill is eager to get out. In bringing this action, he asserts that the U.S. Parole Commission has unfairly blocked his release in a number of ways, including by failing to give him notice about testimony from the victim's family, treating him (a District of Columbia offender) differently from federal prisoners, and rescinding a prior parole grant. Although a further rehearing is now set for November 2018, Hill is unwilling to linger any longer in limbo. He has thus filed suit against the USPC and its three Commissioners in their official capacities, seeking various forms of injunctive and declaratory relief.

         Defendants now move to dismiss, contending that Plaintiffs claims that the proceedings violated due process and equal protection and reached an arbitrary result cannot break the parole cycle. This is so. Because Hill's only avenues to relief involve a further parole hearing or filing a habeas petition, the Court will grant the Government's Motion and dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         Hill is an inmate in his mid-sixties serving time for murdering his ex-girlfriend, Shelby Teresa Duncan, in September 1987. See Mot., Exh. 1 (Sentence Monitoring Computation Data) at 1. For that crime, the District of Columbia Superior Court sentenced him to an indefinite term of imprisonment of twenty years to life. Id. Under the District's old sentencing scheme, this meant that Hill would first be eligible for parole after serving the bottom number - i.e., twenty years - and could not serve longer than the top number, which, in this case, was redundant since it was life. See Warren v. U.S. Parole Comm'n. 659 F.2d 183. 196 (D.C. Cir. 1981) ("Under the penal theory behind the parole system, [a] sentence [i]s deliberately designed to be indeterminate within a broad range so that the precise date of his release could be determined by the best professional judgment [of parole authorities] available at the time of his release as to his prospects for a law-abiding life, among other things."). All told, Plaintiff has now been incarcerated for this murder for almost thirty years. See Computation Data at 2.

         Given his twenty-to-life term, Hill first became parole eligible in October 2007. Id. Although he had been sentenced in a D.C. court for a D.C. Code offense, the U.S. Parole Commission handled his case, as Congress had abolished the D.C. Board of Parole, largely done away with local parole, and transferred jurisdiction to the Commission for remaining offenders by enacting the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-33, § 11231, 111 Stat. 712, 745 (codified at D.C. Code §§ 24-101 et seq.). Over time, the Commission would consider Hill's eligibility on numerous occasions, as it is required to do. See 28 C.F.R. § 2.75(a)(2)(i) (requiring hearings at least every five years where "offense behavior resulted in the death of a victim").

         A. Hearings & Rehearings

         The Commission initially conducted a hearing in July 2007 and denied release after finding that Hill's parole guidelines recommended at least 26 years' imprisonment. See Mot., Exh. 3 (August 7, 2007, Notice of Action). The agency then scheduled a rehearing for July 2012. Id. Apparently realizing thereafter that it should have applied the D.C. Board of Parole's so-called "1987 Guidelines, " not the federal ones, the Commission conducted a rehearing earlier than scheduled in November 2009. Id., Exh. 4 (December 17, 2009, Notice of Action); see ECF No. 1 (Complaint), ¶¶ 33-34; see also 28 C.ER. § 2.8O(o)(1) (making applicable "1987 guidelines of the former District of Columbia Board of Parole"). The correct Guidelines recommended current parole, as opposed to at least several more years' imprisonment, but the Commission nonetheless denied release, instructed Hill to complete his GED and a 500-hour drug-abuse program, and then set a further rehearing a year later. See 2009 Notice of Action.

         That second rehearing took place in November 2010. See Mot., Exh. 5 (February 11, 2011, Notice of Action). This time, despite a Guidelines recommendation of release (again) and his compliance with rehabilitative programs, the USPC again denied parole. Id. It informed Hill that "there is a reasonable probability that you would not obey the law if released and your release would endanger the public safety." Id. More specifically, he was a "more serious parole risk" than the Guidelines suggested because: he was "involved in the strangulation of the victim, following [his] harassment of her due to the relationship ending, " "[t]he victims' nude body was discovered by her children, " and he had "two previous convictions which appear violent in nature, Assault & Battery and Unlawful Wounding, " the details of which had not been fleshed out in previous proceedings. Id. Another rehearing was then scheduled in one year's time. Id. The third rehearing in November 2011 seemed, at first, to be the charm. The Commission granted parole and set an effective release date of August 7, 2012. Id., Exh. 6 (January 11, 2012, Notice of Action). In doing so, it informed Hill that the "parole effective date is contingent upon approval of your release plan by the Commission." Id. (citing 28 C.F.R. §2.82); see 28 C.F.R. §2.83.

         Would that it were so simple. Come February 2012, the USPC learned that Duncan's family members wished to testify. Id., Exh. 9 (July 25, 2012, Hearing Summary). When the Commission receives "new and significant information concerning the prisoner, " 28 C.F.R. § 2.75(e) (citing § 2.28), including "adverse information, " Id. § 2.28(f), it may reopen any case for a special reconsideration hearing. That process begins with one Commissioner's recommending reconsideration to the others; this referral "automatically retard[s] the prisoner's scheduled release date until a final decision is reached in the case." Id. § 2.28(f). If two Commissioners concur in a reopening, then a new hearing is set. Id. That is what happened here. See Mot., Exh. 7 (February 15, 2012, Notice of Action).

         In the subsequent, fourth rehearing in July 2012, an examiner heard testimony from Duncan's sister and eldest daughter. The sister mentioned how Hill had never given specifics about how or why he killed Duncan. See 2012 Hearing Summary at 2. And the daughter discussed how she and her two siblings (10, 6, and 4 years of age back then) were at home during the crime and how the youngest one discovered their mother's body the next morning. Id. at 1, 3. She also testified that Hill had previously threatened to kill Duncan. Id. at 1. Finally, she objected to his plan to live nearby, in the same Maryland county in which she resided, once released. Id. at 1. Plaintiff was not represented, but apologized and testified that he did not remember how or why he strangled Duncan, both because the events occurred some 25 years ago and because he may have been on drugs. Id. at 2.

         The hearing examiner recommended against release, or, in other words, he advocated for rescinding the initial parole grant. He recounted how, at the hearing, Hill "never really displayed any remorse" and was "very methodical, " and was "a bit evasive" about "remember[ing] details of the offense" and "just did not want to bring them up." Id. The examiner found it "unimaginable to kill the mother of these young children and then to walk out and leave a lifeless strangulated body in her apartment knowing full well that sometime the body would be discovered by the three children who were residing in the bedroom next to the mother's bedroom." Id. at 3. Given that this "total disregard for the victim in this case and the safety of her children [wa]s so egregious, " he concluded that there is a "reasonable probability" he would not obey the law and that release would "endanger public safety." Id. (noting "level of violence and the complete disregard for the victim's children"). The Commission agreed and scheduled the next rehearing in five years' time - that is, in July 2017. Id., Exh. 8 (August 29, 2012, Notice of Action).

         Not even this settled things for long. In September 2015, Plaintiffs counsel asked the Commission to reopen the case once again. Id., Exh. 10 (September 30, 2015, Letter from Chanale Fiebig to Hon. J. Patricia Wilson Smoot). In particular, Hill argued that he had not received notice of the nature of the testimony from Duncan's family (thereby impairing his preparation and retention of legal representation), and he had recently developed an alternate release plan to live in a different county in Maryland. Id. at 2-4. This was to no avail, as the Commission rejected his plea. Id., Exh. 11 (February 2, 2016, Memorandum). It reasoned that, "at the outset of the hearing, the Examiner asked Mr. Hill if was aware that victims would be testifying and he said that he was" and that Hill "also informed the Examiner that he was aware of his right to have a person of his choice represent him but did not want a representative." Id. The Commission then found that "the fact that he now has a release plan that is outside of the county where the victims live" was not so "significant as to warrant earlier parole reconsideration." Id.

         B. This Lawsuit & Another Rehearing

         Hill responded by filing this lawsuit in July 2016. His Complaint states two constitutional counts (due process and equal protection) brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and one Administrative Procedure Act claim. See Compl., ¶¶ 58-83. It asks the Court to reverse the Commission's rescission of Plaintiff s grant of parole (or, alternatively, to grant a parole rehearing with the right to appeal) and to declare that D.C. Code offenders have the right to appeal to the National Appeals Board (as federal offenders do). Id., Prayer for Relief, ¶¶ 1-2.

         Still more has happened. Two months after the suit was filed, in September 2016, the Commission notified Hill that it would "[r]eopen and remand for a reconsideration hearing on the next available docket to determine whether the information presented at [the] special reconsideration hearing on July 25, 2012 was sufficient to deny parole pursuant to the statutory criteria set forth in D.C. Code § 24-404(a)" Mot., Exh. 12 (September 30, 2016, Notice of Action). In reviewing the case, the Commission's legal office found that it had "erred by failing to consider reasons other than offense accountability when denying the offender parole, " as is "the Commission's policy with respect to D.C. Code offender[s]." Id., Exh. 2 (November 8, 2016, Hearing Summary) at 4 (citing 28 C.ER. § 2.73); see 28 C.F.R. § 2.8O(o)(4) (specifying effective Guidelines and policies). That is, the parole rescission had focused exclusively, and incorrectly, only on the circumstances of the murder. The Commission also let Plaintiff know that it would "[n]otify victims of reconsideration hearing to be given an opportunity to present further testimony." September 2016 Notice of Action.

         In what would be another special reconsideration hearing convened in November 2016 - in effect, a fifth rehearing - an examiner heard testimony from Duncan's eldest daughter and two sisters, elicited statements by Hill himself (represented by an attorney), and received letters from the victim's son and uncle. See 2016 Hearing Summary at 1-3. After the proceedings, Hill submitted a written apology, and his brother sent in a letter of support. Id. at 7.

         This time, the witnesses gave more details, first about Plaintiffs relationship with Duncan. Id. at 5 (noting "greater details of the events"). The victim's daughter first discussed how Hill had a history of attacking not only women but also children, including how he had "assaulted her by slamming her face into a mirror, beating her with a weight belt and busting her lip, " and had abused her and her brother. Id. at 1. Duncan's sister described "how the offender repeatedly stalked" Duncan for a month before the murder and the "family's futile attempts to ensure her safety by closely monitoring the victim's departures and returns to her residence." Id. at 2, 6. The examiner also asked Plaintiff about a petition for a Civil Protection Order filed by Duncan, discovered by the Commission's staff, alleging that he "had attempted to suffocate her with a pillow." Id. at 3, 5. "[A]fter [he] choked her" on a separate occasion, in May 1987, Duncan apparently "broke[] off the relationship." Id. at 6. Hill testified that he "was under the influence of PCP when he committed the offense and did not provide any specific details regarding the actual murder." Id. at 3.

         In addition, Duncan's sister also testified how Hill's ex-wife (a different woman) was left "permanently disfigured" after a "brutal attack." Id. at 2. Plaintiff admitted that his prior convictions for Assault & Battery and Unlawful Wounding involved his "assaulting his ex-wife by striking her in the face with the barrel of a pistol" and then shooting his mother-in-law after she attempted to intervene. Id. at 3; see Id. at 6 (characterizing incident, somewhat differently, as "beating her with a rifle butt[, ] shattering her face"). At the time, Hill had filed for divorce and was refusing to let his ex-wife interact with their daughter. Id. at 3.

         The examiner recommended against parole. She discounted testimony that Hill had abused Duncan's children, as it lacked documentation. Id. at 5. But the examiner reasoned that, "[notwithstanding his [drug-abuse and anger-management] program participation, clear conduct[, ] and current age and health, the offender's history of stalking his female victim [and] history of vicious assaults against his female paramours and their family make his release incompatible with public safety." Id. (finding Government's memorandum and Civil Protection "very persuasive and indicative of the offender's propensity for domestic violence"). The Commission agreed, noting again a "reasonable probability" that Hill would not obey the law and that release would "not [be] compatible with the welfare of society." Id., Exh. 13 (December 15, 2016, Notice of Action). It considered, in particular, his repeated stalking and threatening of Duncan, attempting to suffocate her with a pillow (leading to the Civil Protection Order), choking her, beating his ex-wife, and shooting his ex-wife's mother. Id. Given this "history of domestic violence, " the USPC set a rehearing after Hill served two more years. Id; see 2016 Hearing Summary at 5 (explaining two years, not five, warranted due to "age and health").

         Once it made this decision, the Government filed the present Motion to Dismiss, which is now ripe.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), the Court may dismiss a case if the plaintiff cannot show that it has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear his claims. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992); U.S. Ecology. Inc. v. Dep't of Interior. 231 F.3d 20, 24 (D.C. Cir. 2000). "Because subject-matter jurisdiction focuses on the court's power to hear the plaintiffs claim, a Rule 12(b)(1) motion [also] imposes on the court an affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority." Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001). In policing its jurisdictional borders, the Court must scrutinize the complaint, treating its factual allegations as true and granting the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be derived from those facts. See Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court need not rely "on the complaint standing alone, " however, but may also look to undisputed facts in the record or resolve disputed ones. Herbert v. Nat'l Acad, of Scis, 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

         Rule 12(b)(6), on the other hand, permits a Court to dismiss any count of a complaint that fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In evaluating the motion, the Court must likewise "treat the complaint's factual allegations as true and must grant plaintiff 'the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'" Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (citation omitted). The Court need not accept as true, however, "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation" or an inference ...

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