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Washington Classification Reassessment Requires Notice and Hearing

The Washington State Court of Appeals held that reassessment of a prisoner’s risk classification which made him ineligible for a 50 percent sentence reduction, without notice or an opportunity to be heard, violated due process.

In 2004, Charles Leon Wheeler pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and was sentenced to 57 months in prison. He “believed he would be eligible for a 50 percent earned early release under … RCW 9.94A.728(1)(b).” Prisoners in the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) who are classified in one of the two lowest risk categories (RM-C and RM-D) qualify for the reduction, while those classified in the two highest categories (RM-A and RM-B) do not. The classification is based on the offender’s criminal history and the DOC’s risk assessment.

Initially, the DOC placed Wheeler in category RM-C, making him eligible for 50 percent earned early release. Subsequently, however, the DOC reassessed his risk level and placed him in category RM-B – which rendered him ineligible.

Wheeler filed a personal restraint petition (PRP) in state court, objecting to the DOC’s determination that he was ineligible for the 50 percent earned early release credit.
Wheeler also argued the DOC had deprived him of due process of law by reassessing his risk category to RM-B without notice or an opportunity to object to the reassessment.

The DOC initially argued that Wheeler’s 2001 conviction for attempted residential burglary rendered him ineligible for the early release credit. The court found, however, and the DOC conceded, that “under a plain reading of the statute, attempted residential burglary is not a disqualifying conviction.” Regardless, the DOC persisted in classifying Wheeler as RM-B and denying him the 50 percent sentence reduction.

Citing In re PRP of Adams, 132 Wash.App. 640, 653, 134 P.3d 1176 (2006), the appellate court stated that “when DOC reassesses an offender’s risk category, ‘minimum due process requires written notice of the reasons DOC is seeking to change … classification and an opportunity to challenge the facts DOC relied on … to reach that decision.’” Yet in this case there was “nothing in the limited record” suggesting that “Wheeler was given notice of the reasons behind DOC’s decision … or that he had an opportunity to challenge the facts relied upon by DOC to reach its decision.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that under Adams, Wheeler was deprived of due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case was then remanded “... with instructions for DOC to return Mr. Wheeler to RM-C status and determine his release date accordingly.” See: In re PRP of Wheeler, 140 Wash.App. 670, 166 P.3d 871 (Wash.App. Div. 3, 2007).

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Related legal case

In re PRP of Wheeler