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Ninth Circuit: “Supervised Release” is Not “Imprisonment”

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has held that with respect to 18 U.S.C. § 3624(e), being on supervised release in a state community pre-release center did not toll a state prisoner’s concurrent federal supervised release. Since the plaintiff had therefore served all of his federal probation period while participating in the state community pre-release program, he was beyond the federal court’s jurisdiction for reincarceration when he failed a subsequent drug test.

Dennis Sullivan tested positive for marijuana in August 2006. The U.S. District Court (D. Mont.) ruled that was a violation of his supervised release from a 1998 federal conviction for possession of a stolen money order. Sullivan had originally been sentenced to 18 months in prison plus three years of supervised release. The latter required him to refrain from any unlawful use of a controlled substance. Upon violating Sullivan, the court sentenced him to an additional 12 months in prison and 20 more months of supervised release.

However, Sullivan had a concurrent sentence from a Montana state court. In February 2001, he was transferred from a state prison to a state pre-release center, from which he was released in September 2002. At issue was whether the 19 months that Sullivan spent in the pre-release center was “imprisonment” – which would toll his federal supervised release period. If not, his federal supervision period would have expired by the time he tested positive for marijuana.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit joined four other circuits in holding that because the pre-release center did not involve being in a locked facility, it was not “imprisonment” within the meaning of § 3624(e). Indeed, inspection of both Montana and federal statutes revealed that “imprisonment” meant being locked up. Thus, it didn’t matter whether one looked to state or federal law as to the tolling question. The appellate court was guided by U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which stated, “Congress intended supervised release to assist individuals in their transition to community life. Supervised release serves rehabilitative ends, distinct from those served by incarceration.” [United States v. Johnson, 529 U.S. 53, 59 (1999)].

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit determined that the district court had no authority to revoke Sullivan’s federal supervised release, which had expired at the time of his positive drug test. See: United States v. Sullivan, 504 F.3d 969 (9th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

United States v. Sullivan