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Tennessee Supreme Court: No Separate Parole Dates for Consecutive Sentences

by Matt Clarke

On May 25, 2012, the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that prisoners with consecutive sentences are not entitled to separate parole eligibility dates for each sentence. The Court also clarified that a prisoner may only challenge the calculation of a release eligibility date by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) under the procedures outlined in the state's Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (UAPA), T.C.A. §§ 4-5-101 to 325. Decisions by the parole board, however, are challenged via a petition for common law writ of certiorari.

Danny A. Stewart, a Tennessee state prisoner, was convicted of thirteen drug-related crimes. His sentences were run consecutive, with a ten-year sentence stacked on a twenty-year sentence that was stacked on a twelve-year sentence, for a total combined sentence of 42 years. The TDOC calculated his parole release eligibility date by adding the sentences and treating them as a single 42-year prison term.

The Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (BPP) denied Stewart parole in November 2009. He filed an appeal with the BPP, arguing that he had not been given a custodial parole hearing as required under Howell v. State, 569 S.W.2d 428 (Tenn. 1978). The BPP denied his appeal. Stewart did not request a declaratory order from the TDOC regarding the calculation of his release eligibility date.

Instead, he filed a petition for a common law writ of certiorari in chancery court that named the BPP, the TDOC and officials from both agencies as defendants. The petition argued that he was entitled to a custodial parole hearing and that the TDOC had miscalculated his release eligibility date by treating his consecutive sentences as one sentence.

The chancery court dismissed his petition. Stewart then appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal. The defendants requested permission to appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which was granted.

The Supreme Court held that the UAPA governs a prisoner's challenge to the TDOC's calculation of a release eligibility date. The UAPA requires that the prisoner request a declaratory order from the TDOC before filing a declaratory judgment action in Davidson County Chancery Court, pursuant to T.C.A. § 4-5-223(a). Because Stewart had failed to seek a declaratory order from the TDOC concerning the calculation of his release eligibility date, he was barred from bringing a declaratory judgment action against the TDOC, and that issue was therefore properly dismissed.

The state Supreme Court further held that the UAPA does not govern a prisoner's challenge to parole decisions by the BPP. Such challenges, which are limited to the procedures used by the BPP to reach its decision and not the decision's "intrinsic correctness," are brought via a petition for a writ of certiorari. However, Stewart's claim regarding the BPP was only that he had not received a custodial parole hearing pursuant to Howell.

Noting that Howell was decided to address a lack of statutory law governing consecutive sentencing in 1978, the Court found that Howell had been superseded by Tennessee's Criminal Sentencing Reform Act of 1989, which specifically addressed the issue of consecutive sentences and instructed that the "periods of ineligibility for release are calculated for each sentence and are added together to determine the release eligibility date for the consecutive sentences." Therefore, Stewart's claim that he should have received custodial parole hearings for each of his consecutive sentences had no basis in law and was properly dismissed.

The decision of the Court of Appeals was accordingly reversed and the judgment of the chancery court dismissing the petition reinstated. See: Stewart v. Schofield, 368 S.W.3d 457 (Tenn. 2012).

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Related legal case

Stewart v. Schofield