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Texas Parole Board’s Hearing on Imposition of Sex Offender Conditions Inadequate

by Matt Clarke

On March 24, 2009, a U.S. District Court ruled that hearings held by the Texas parole board before imposing sex offender parole conditions on prisoners not convicted of sex offenses were constitutionally inadequate.

Raul Meza, a Texas prisoner, was convicted of murdering an eight-year-old girl and sentenced to 30 years. When he was released on mandatory supervision, the parole board imposed extremely onerous special parole conditions. The Texas Civil Rights Project helped Meza file a federal civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing that the conditions violated his due process and equal protection rights.

The parole conditions required Meza to be housed in the Travis County Jail-Del Valle facility, being allowed to leave the jail only with prior approval of the parole board and accompanied by a parole officer; to find a job and housing before being released from the jail, but not giving him adequate job search support and telling each potential employer that he was a sex offender; and to stay away from “child safety zones,” among other restrictions. As a result, Meza was incarcerated at the Travis County Jail for six years “on parole,” under the same conditions as jail prisoners in a work release program – conditions which were arguably worse than those in the state prison system. The state claimed that Meza was not “confined” at the jail. The district court disagreed.

Before Meza was paroled, the parole board sent him notice of a hearing on the imposition of sex offender conditions pursuant to Coleman v. Dretke, 395 F.3d 216 (5th Cir. 2004) [PLN, July 2006, p.27]. The Coleman decision required the parole board to provide an appropriate hearing before imposing sex offender conditions on prisoners not convicted of sex offenses, but did not define an “appropriate” hearing. The parole board began sending notices to such prisoners 30 days before the hearing, informing them that they could submit evidence in their favor.

However, prisoners were not allowed to appear at the hearing in person or by counsel, to cross-examine witnesses, or to review the evidence against them. The board made no written findings of fact. The state argued that Coleman only applied to the requirement that parolees participate in sex offender treatment. The court disagreed, finding that many of the restrictions placed on Meza were as onerous as the treatment condition, including being labeled as a sex offender, which could prevent him from finding employment.

With no information regarding the evidence that would be used against him at the hearing, Meza was unable to prepare an informed response to the parole board’s intent to impose sex offender conditions. Thus, the court held that the state’s hearing process created a risk of erroneous deprivation, and that additional procedural protections were necessary.

Such protections should approximate those provided during parole revocation hearings, including (1) sufficient advance written notice of the hearing; (2) disclosure of adverse evidence, including the portions of the parole file to be considered at the hearing; (3) a hearing where the prisoner is heard in person, represented by counsel and allowed to present evidence; (4) an opportunity to call witnesses and usually cross-examine adverse witnesses; (5) an independent decision maker; and (6) a written statement by the fact finder as to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the board’s decision.

To impose sex offender restrictions on prisoners not convicted of sex offenses, there must be a finding as a result of the hearing “that [the offender] ‘constitutes a threat to society by reason of his lack of sexual control.’” The district court found unpersuasive the state’s argument that hearings which included such due process protections would be too expensive. See: Meza v. Livingston, 623 F.Supp.2d 782 (W.D. Tex. 2009).

Additional source: Austin American-Statesman

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Related legal case

Meza v. Livingston