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No Liberty Interest Under Utah Parole Scheme

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Utah prisoner had failed to state cognizable due process and equal protection challenges to Utah’s parole scheme.

In 1993, Robert Straley was convicted of sex crimes against a child and sentenced to two concurrent one-to-fifteen year sentences. The sentence was stayed and he was placed on probation; however, he violated probation in 1996 and was sent to prison. “On four separate occasions between January 2002 and August 2006, Straley was released from prison on parole. Without fail, though, Straley would violate the terms of his parole and return to prison.” He was finally required to serve the remainder of his sentence behind bars.

In 2005, Straley brought a state court challenge alleging that the “Board of Pardon’s (Board) authority to set a release date within Utah’s indeterminate sentencing scheme violated his federal due process and equal protection rights, Utah separation of powers principles, as well as his right to a speedy trial.” When his petition was denied, Straley filed a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241.

The district court denied the petition and the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Relying on Malek v. Haun, 26 F.3d 1013 (10th Cir. 1994), the appellate court noted that Utah’s parole scheme does not create a protected liberty interest. The Court of Ap-peals also held that Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995) did not undermine the precedential value of Malek. “We can dispose of Straley’s contention that Utah’s ‘indeterminate’ sentencing scheme is unconstitutional,” wrote the Tenth Circuit. “It is not.”

The appellate court also rejected Straley’s equal protection arguments as “unpersuasive.” It noted that “he makes a conclusionary assertion that there are racial disparities in the Board’s parole determinations. He also claims the Board shows favoritism towards Mormon sex offenders.” The Court of Appeals concluded, however, that “Straley fails to provide any real evidence that he was treated differently,” especially because “he was originally given an even shorter sentence than the ‘similarly situated’ individuals Straley claims were given more lenient treatment by the Board.” As Straley failed “to identify any similarly situated individual that has been given any different or more beneficial treatment,” the Court found “his bare equal protection claims are simply too conclusory to permit proper legal analysis.”

Finally, the Tenth Circuit rejected Straley’s federal separation of powers argument because “the United States Consti-tution’s separation of powers principles are inapplicable to a state’s organization of its own government.” See: Straley v. Utah Board of Pardons, 582 F.3d 1208 (10th Cir. 2009), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Straley v. Utah Board of Pardons