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Due Process Requirements Not Met in Washington Probation Violation Notice

On May 27, 2010, the Washington Supreme Court granted a prisoner's personal restraint petition. In doing so, the Court held that the level of specificity provided in the Department of Correction's (DOC) notice of probation violation did not meet due process requirements.

Douglas Louis Blackburn pleaded guilty to two drug crimes in 2004 and received a split sentence of a term of total confinement and a term of community custody. One condition of community custody was that he "obey all laws." If Blackburn failed to do so, the DOC had the right to reclassify him and send him back to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.

On May 15, 2008, the DOC notified Blackburn of an alleged violation of his community custody, "Failure to obey all laws: specifically, threatening to kill Shelly Blackburn" (his sister-in-law). The notice listed the documents and witnesses that the DOC intended to present at the violation hearing, including RCW 9A.46.020, the harassment statute. At the hearing Blackburn was found to have violated the harassment statute and was reclassified to serve the remainder of his sentence in total confinement. The decision was affirmed by the DOC administrative appeals panel, and Blackburn filed a personal restraint petition in the state Supreme Court.

In reviewing Blackburn's petition, the Court first noted that for the DOC "to lawfully reclassify an offender for imprisonment for a violation of an 'obey all laws' condition of community custody, the notice must allege the facts and legal elements that DOC would have to prove to show an offender did not obey all laws. '[N]otice of the specific statute guarantees the fairest opportunity for the defendant to isolate the various elements of the crime and present facts in his defense.'"

However, in Blackburn's case the notice did not state which law he failed to obey, and saying that he had threatened to kill someone did not reflect the elements of the harassment statute. Moreover, the harassment statute referred to in the notice was listed as documentary evidence, not the law that Blackburn allegedly failed to obey.

As such, the Supreme Court held that the notice Blackburn received did not comport with the requirements of due process, and therefore vacated the disposition of the DOC hearing officer. See: In the Matter of the Personal Restraint of Blackburn, 168 Wash.2d 881 (Wash. 2010).

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Related legal case

In the Matter of the Personal Restraint of Blackburn