Civil rights--state prisoners may challenge constitutionality of parole procedures under 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983--Wilkinson v. Dotson, 125 S. CT. 1242 (2005).

AuthorRod, Rachel

Federal prisoner litigation most often arises under either 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983 or the federal habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254. (1) In 1973, the United States Supreme Court announced an exception to the broad language of [section] 1983 when it held that a prisoner must bring a suit for equitable relief that challenges "the fact or duration of confinement" as a habeas corpus petition. (2) The Court later expanded the habeas exception to [section] 1983 federal prisoner litigation to all claims in which the prisoner's success would "necessarily demonstrate[] the invalidity of the conviction." (3) In Wilkinson v. Dotson, (4) the Court limited the exception when it held that a prisoner may pursue a [section] 1983 claim challenging the constitutionality of parole eligibility and parole determination procedures. (5)

Two Ohio state prisoners, William Dwight Dotson and Rogerico Johnson, filed separate [section] 1983 suits against the state parole authority alleging that state parole procedures violated their constitutional rights. (6) An Ohio court sentenced Dotson to life in prison in 1981, when Ohio law provided that Dotson must serve fifteen years before he was eligible for parole. (7) The Ohio Parole Board did not release Dotson at his first parole hearing in 1995, postponed his second hearing for ten years, and scheduled a halfway review for the year 2000. (8)

The Ohio legislature enacted new parole guidelines in 1998 that differed from the guidelines in force when a court convicted Dotson. (9) At his halfway review in March 2000, the Parole Board applied the new guidelines and ruled that Dotson must serve 32.5 years to be eligible for parole. (10) Dotson filed suit under [section] 1983 challenging the Parole Board's application of the 1998 guidelines to determine his parole eligibility. (11)

Rogerico Johnson entered an Ohio prison in 1992 to serve a ten to thirty year sentence. (12) Only one board member presided at Johnson's parole hearing, Johnson was not permitted to address the Board member orally, and the Board member's decision to deny Johnson parole relied on two alleged convictions that the State did not pursue against Johnson. (13) Additionally, the Parole Board applied the 1998 guidelines that were not in force when an Ohio court convicted Johnson. (14)

In accordance with 28 U.S.C. [section] 1915(e)(2), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio dismissed Dotson's suit, sua sponte. (15) The district court found that Dotson's claim could not proceed because "'a judgment on the merits would affect the validity of [his] conviction or sentence, [and his] conviction or sentence has [not] been previously set aside.'" (16) The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and held that Dotson's [section] 1983 claim was valid because a new parole eligibility hearing did not "'challenge ... the fact or duration of his confinement" and "even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of an outstanding criminal judgment against" him. (17)

On rehearing en banc, the Sixth Circuit held that both suits could proceed under [section] 1983 because success on the inmates' complaints would not "necessarily imply the invalidity of [their] convictions." (18) The Sixth Circuit reasoned that the prisoners, if successful, would not automatically receive a shortened prison sentence because the Board considers multiple factors to grant parole. (19) The Ohio Parole Board appealed, and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether a prisoner may challenge the constitutionality of state parole procedures under [section] 1983. (20)

The federal habeas corpus statute and [section] 1983 are the two primary mechanisms that prisoners use to challenge violations of their constitutional rights. (21) Most prisoners prefer to sue under [section] 1983 because, unlike a [section] 1983 action, habeas relief requires prisoners to exhaust all state remedies and damage awards are not available in habeas relief. (22) Despite the apparent applicability of [section] 1983 to a prisoner's lawsuit, the United States Supreme Court held that the sole federal remedy for a prisoner challenging "the fact or duration of his confinement" is habeas corpus because allegations of wrongful confinement go to the "core of habeas corpus." (23)

In Preiser v. Rodriguez, the United States Supreme Court held that [section] 1983 challenges to prison disciplinary procedures that deny good time credits go to the "core of habeas corpus" because a prisoner's success on the merits of his claim would result in a shorter prison sentence. (24) The Court also intimated that if habeas relief is available, [section] 1983 suits are not because principles of federalism mandate that the States have the first chance to remedy errors in prison administration. (25) A prisoner may, however, challenge "the wrong procedures, not ... the wrong result" because the suit does not implicate the "core of habeas corpus." (26) The Preiser court noted that a prisoner's prayer for equitable remedies is a clear attack on "the fact or duration of confinement," but a prisoner's suit for damages could be cognizable under [section] 1983. (27) Later, the Court closed the door on [section] 1983 prisoner suits for damages where "judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence." (28) In Heck v. Humphrey, a prisoner brought a [section] 1983 suit for damages for, among other claims, malicious prosecution. (29) The Court held that because one element of a malicious prosecution claim is that the criminal proceeding end in the prisoner's favor, success on the merits of his claims would negatively impact his conviction.(30) An exception to this rule is if the prisoner can show that a court reversed his prior conviction on direct appeal, an executive order expunged his prior conviction, or a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus called his prior conviction into question. (31)

The Court subsequently declared invalid [section] 1983 prisoner lawsuits that challenged prison disciplinary procedures if the suit threatened the underlying conviction. (32) For example, in Edwards v. Balisok, the Court held that allegations of "deceit and bias on the part of the decision maker," if successful, would "necessarily imply the invalidity of the deprivation of good time credits." (33) Conversely, prisoner attacks on prison disciplinary procedures under [section] 1983 are cognizable if they concern the conditions of confinement. (34)

Although the Court did not expressly define the relationship of [section] 1983 to prisoner attacks on parole eligibility and parole determination before Wilkinson, federal courts often adjudicated parole challenges under the federal habeas statute. (35) The circuit courts, however, generally hold that an inmate may file [section] 1983 suits challenging the constitutionality of parole eligibility procedures. (36) In particular, the Sixth Circuit permitted several Ohio inmates to pursue a [section] 1983 action alleging due process violation in the parole process. (37)

In Wilkinson v. Dotson, (38) the United States Supreme Court considered whether state prisoners have cognizable claims under [section] 1983 to question the constitutionality of state parole procedures. (39) The Wilkinson court held that prisoners are not limited to habeas relief when challenging the constitutionality of state parole procedures because success on the merits of such actions "would [not] necessarily spell speedier release" and do not go to "the core of habeas corpus." (40) The Court articulated a concise rule encompassing all prior case law concerning prisoner litigation under [section] 1983:

A state prisoner's [section] 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation)--no matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit (state conduct lead to conviction or internal prison proceedings)--if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or duration. (41) The Court then rejected Ohio's contention that the prisoners are challenging their confinement because the ultimate goal is to be released from prison sooner. (42) With respect to Dotson's claim concerning Ohio's parole eligibility procedures, the Court held that forcing the Ohio Parole Board to consider another parole application will not necessarily invalidate his conviction or sentence because the Board still has discretion not to grant parole. (43) Similarly, Johnson's demand for a new parole determination proceeding will not guarantee a quicker prison release because that decision is at the Board's discretion. (44)

Justices Scalia and Thomas, concurring, posited that the right to release is not implicated in a prisoner's challenge to...

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