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Fifth Circuit Delineates Process Due Before Imposition of Sex Offender Parole Conditions

by Matt Clarke

On May 20, 2010, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Texas parolees who had never been convicted of a sex offense, but were subject to onerous sex offender parole conditions (SOPCs), were entitled to specific and extensive due process before the imposition of such conditions.

Raul Meza, a Texas parolee, filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit in federal court against the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) and Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Parole Division (TDCJ-PD) employees, alleging his 14th Amendment due process rights were violated when the defendants imposed severe SOPCs on him despite the fact that he had never been convicted of a sex offense.

His parole conditions included requirements that he register as a sex offender, participate in sex offender therapy (SOT), not enter child-safety zones, be placed under super intensive supervision parole (SISP), and not leave the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) unless accompanied by a parole officer. The combined effect of those conditions meant that Meza had been unable to leave TCCC since he was paroled in 2002.

Meza had been convicted of murdering a nine-year-old girl in 1982. The only time he admitted to sexually assaulting the girl was as part of the mandatory SOT. His lawyer stated that had Meza not admitted to sexually assaulting the victim, his parole would have been revoked for failure to participate in the SOT. The defendants did not contest this explanation. There was no other evidence in the record that Meza had ever committed a sex crime.

Before the SOPCs were imposed, Meza was given notice of the BPP’s intention to impose the conditions and provided an opportunity to submit written evidence. Neither he nor his attorney were allowed to attend the hearing, call witnesses or review the evidence used against him. The only presentation to the BPP panel was a TDCJ-PD employee who argued in favor of imposing SOPCs. The district court held that that was inadequate due process, and the defendants appealed. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.30].

The Fifth Circuit found that Meza had a significant liberty interest in being free of sex offender registration and therapy conditions. The appellate court reviewed the process due prisoners in disciplinary cases, prisoners facing involuntary transfer to mental health facilities and parolees facing revocation. The Court of Appeals held that the process Meza was due before SOPCs were imposed included: 1) written notice of the pending imposition of sex offender conditions; 2) disclosure of the evidence to be presented; 3) a hearing that Meza is allowed to attend, at which he may present documentary evidence and call witnesses; 4) the right to cross-examine witnesses (unless good cause is shown); 5) an impartial decision maker; and 6) a written statement by the factfinder of the evidence relied upon and the reasons for imposing SOPCs.

The Fifth Circuit noted that, according to the BPP, parole officials intended to impose SOPCs on around 6,900 prisoners who had not been convicted of a sex offense. However, the appellate court rejected the estimated $750,000 cost of providing those prisoners with adequate hearings as a reason to circumvent due process.

The Court of Appeals held that the TDCJ-PD could be sued, even though it was the BPP that imposed SOPCs, because the TDCJ-PD played a key role in the process – including preparing the file used by the BPP, orally arguing in favor of SOPCs, and controlling the implementation of many of the SOPCs. Further, neither the TDCJ-PD nor the BPP was entitled to qualified or Eleventh Amendment immunity.

The district court had dismissed Meza’s equal protection claims and challenges to non-sex offender parole conditions, such as requiring him to live at TCCC. The Fifth Circuit vacated the dismissal of those claims, noting that they were not patently frivolous and should be addressed by the district court following remand.

The Fifth Circuit held that even though Meza was no longer required to register as a sex offender, sex offender registration remained an issue in the case because it created a lifelong stigma. But the Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court’s delineation of the process Meza was due insofar that it required the state to provide an attorney for the SOPC hearing.

Thus, the dismissal of Meza’s equal protection and non-sex offender claims were reversed and remanded to the district court for entry of an order consistent with the appellate ruling. Judge Weiner filed a concurring and dissenting opinion in which he argued that the state should be required to provide an attorney to represent parolees at SOPC hearings. See: Meza v. Livingston, 607 F.3d 392 (5th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Meza v. Livingston