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Ninth Circuit Holds Washington DOC Immune From Suit for Denial of Community Custody Early Release

by John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that the Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) was qualifiedly immune from suit by prisoners who claimed that they were improperly denied participation in WDOC?s Community Custody Early Release (CCER) program.
The court held that there was no liberty interest created by the program.

Samatha Chaney and three other WDOC prisoners, who either were or would become eligible for CCER placement, sued (former) WDOC Director Joseph Lehman in U.S. District Court (W.D. Wash.) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for community release under RCW § 9.94A728(2) (2006) (establishing the CCER program) at their earliest possible release date. The district court dismissed their action with prejudice upon finding Lehman was protected by qualified immunity.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed. It observed that the CCER statute only provided that prisoners ?may? receive such release, and then only upon having WDOC approve their applications. The applications required, at a minimum, an approved residence and living arrangement. A subjective determination by WDOC that release was inconsistent with public safety concerns could also result in disapproval. However, no hearing was available for these determinations. The prisoners alleged that such disapprovals denied them due process of law.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed. Citing Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex, 442 U.S. 1 (1979), the court noted that there is no constitutional right to early release, and hence no liberty interest. While it is true that states may create a liberty interest by statute or regulation, that was not the case here. The Washington State appellate courts recognize only a ?limited? liberty interest in such cases (In re Taylor, 122 Wn.App. 880 (2004)), to which no hearing rights attached. Because CCER is purely discretionary in nature, no enforceable liberty interest obtains, and therefore no court remedy for its denial exists. A prisoner may reapply to WDOC, however, to correct perceived deficiencies in his earlier proposed plans.

See: Chaney v. Lehman, 225 Fed. Appx. 708 (9th Cir. 2007).

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