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SC Supreme Court Reverses Furtick; No Liberty Interest in Opportunity to Earn Sentence-Reduction Credits
In June 2008, South Carolina state prisoner Stacy W. Howard was disciplined for providing legal assistance to another prisoner – a violation of “Unauthorized Services/Piddling (845) of SCDC Policy OP-22.14.” The violation precluded Howard from earning good-time credits for the month of the infraction and a reduction in earned-work credit for that month and subsequent months. He did not suffer a loss of previously-earned good-time credits.
Howard appealed his disciplinary conviction to the ALC pursuant to Al-Shabazz v. State, 338 S.C. 354, 527 S.E.2d 742 (S.C. 2000). However, eight days prior to Howard’s disciplinary violation, the South Carolina Code had been amended to preclude an administrative law judge from hearing prisoner appeals “involving the loss of the opportunity to earn sentence-related credits.”
The ALC summarily dismissed Howard’s appeal, finding that the amendment had deprived it of jurisdiction and that “the ‘statute applies not only to the loss of the right to earn good time for the month (of the infraction) but to the loss of the right to earn other credits such as earned work credits.’”
On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court reconsidered its decision in Furtick v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, 374 S.C. 334, 649 S.E.2d 35 (S.C. 2007), in which the Court had held that “where a matter clearly implicates a loss of statutory sentence-related credits, the ALC may not summarily dismiss the action.” The Court overruled Furtick and adopted the reasoning of the dissent in that case, finding that “the loss of the opportunity to earn sentence-related credits does not implicate a state created liberty interest.” However, the Court found that completely eviscerating all judicial review of the loss of earned sentence-related credits due to a disciplinary violation may violate a prisoner’s due process rights.
“The ALC may summarily dismiss an inmate appeal that involves only the loss of the opportunity to earn sentence-related credit,” the Supreme Court wrote. “However, a matter is reviewable by the ALC where an inmate’s appeal also implicates a state-created liberty or property interest, such as the loss of accrued sentence-related credits.”
The Court held that the ALC had erred in summarily dismissing Howard’s appeal because “it involved more than a review of the loss of the opportunity to earn good-time credits and a reduction in earned-work credits.” The ALC could have ruled on Howard’s as-applied challenge to the policy, which prohibited him from providing legal assistance to another prisoner.
Nevertheless, the Court found that remand was unnecessary because Howard did not demonstrate any grounds upon which relief could be granted. His challenge to the policy under Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483 (1969) was misplaced because reasonable alternatives existed to his provision of legal assistance to the other prisoner. He also could not prevail on his court access claim under Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977) and Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996) [PLN, Aug. 1996, p.1], as he had not suffered actual injury.
“Because there is no particularized right to provide legal assistance to another prisoner under Johnson and there is no derivative right to affirmatively assert a Bounds violation,” the Court wrote it could not “discern a legal basis on which [Howard] could be granted relief.” Even if he had “a viable Johnson defense to the enforcement of the prison disciplinary policy,” he had shown “no cognizable injury as a result of the enforcement.” Howard’s due process claims also lacked merit, in part because he had admitted to the policy violation.
Accordingly, the ALC’s dismissal of his appeal was affirmed. See: Howard v. South Carolina Department of Corrections, 399 S.C. 618, 733 S.E.2d 211 (S.C. 2012).
Federal courts in South Carolina have since used the decision in Howard to dismiss due process claims raised by state prisoners related to the opportunity to earn sentence-reduction credits. For example, on November 5, 2013, the U.S. District Court adopted a magistrate’s report and recommendation that certain defendants be dismissed without service of process in a § 1983 suit raising claims concerning a prisoner’s placement in a Special Management Unit.
The district court held that “the Magistrate Judge correctly found that under South Carolina law, ‘an inmate’s loss of the opportunity to earn sentence-related credits does not implicate a state-created liberty interest,’” citing the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Howard. See: Abdullah v. Thomas, U.S.D.C. (D. SC), Case No. 2:12-cv-03499-RMG; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159049.
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