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DC Circuit: Qualified Immunity for Retroactive U.S. Parole Commission Regulations

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (DC) Circuit has affirmed a district court's grant of qualified immunity to U.S. Parole Commission officials related to the retroactive application of parole regulations.

In 1993, Melvin Taylor was convicted of criminal charges in DC and sentenced to a maximum term of 45 years in prison, with parole eligibility "after serving one-third of the maximum period, minus any good-time credits." In 1993 the District of Columbia had its own parole board which applied 1987 parole regulations. In 1997, however, Congress placed the DC parole system under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC). Three years later, the USPC adopted its own rules governing parole suitability which were applied retroactively to offenders like Taylor.

The USPC held Taylor's first parole hearing in 2001 and applied its 2000 regulations to deny him parole. In 2005, Taylor was again denied parole based on the USPC's 2000 regulations.

Taylor filed a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, relying upon Garner v. Jones, 529 U.S. 244 (2000) [PLN, June 2000, p.5] to assert that the USPC's retroactive application of its 2000 regulations at both his 2001 and 2005 parole hearings violated the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The district court recognized that Taylor "may have a meritorious claim" but concluded that, at best, he would be entitled only to a new parole hearing under the 1987 DC parole board regulations. Since the court found that Taylor would not be entitled to release, his habeas petition was dismissed – although the court suggested that he may have a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Taylor then filed a federal lawsuit against four USPC Commissioners, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief plus monetary damages. In response to similar lawsuits, the USPC had adopted a rule in 2009 that "entitl[ed] inmates like Taylor to new parole hearings in which the 1987 DC rules would be applied." Under that rule, Taylor received a new hearing and was again denied parole.

The district court granted the USPC's motion to dismiss Taylor's lawsuit for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In granting qualified immunity to the defendants, the court found "it was not clearly established in 2005 – nor is it today – that the Commission's retroactive application of its guidelines violated the ex post facto clause," because "such a determination depends on the facts of the particular case."

Taylor appealed and the DC Circuit affirmed, finding that "A parole official applying the 2000 Regulations at Taylor's parole hearings would not have had reason to know that doing so would create a 'significant risk' of longer incarceration than applying the 1987 Regulations." Therefore, "although it was clearly established at the relevant times that applying new parole regulations creating a significant risk of longer incarceration violates the Ex Post Facto Clause," the Court of Appeals held "it would not have been clear to reasonable parole officials that applying the new regulations to Taylor would actually create such a risk."

Taylor sought rehearing and rehearing en banc from the DC Circuit, which were both denied, then petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari review, which was denied on January 22, 2013. See: Taylor v. Reilly, 685 F.3d 1110 (D.C. Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Taylor v. Reilly