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Ninth Circuit Directs BOP to Reconsider Denial of Designation to State Prison for Service of Federal Sentence

On May 25, 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a federal prisoner’s petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, in which he complained of an abuse of discretion by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The appellate court held the BOP had abused its discretion by considering a letter submitted by a recused, non-sentencing district court judge, Chief Judge Federico A. Moreno, who had a connection to the victim in the case and previously had been recused for that reason.

The Court of Appeals found the district court had the authority to consider claims raised by federal prisoner Daniel Angel Rodriguez – who argued the BOP violated 18 U.S.C. § 3621(b) when it denied his request for a discretionary nunc pro tunc designation of a state prison for service of his federal prison sentence – and the lower court had committed error by dismissing Rodriguez’s § 2241 petition.

The Ninth Circuit also held that the BOP had erred when it “relied on a letter from a judge who not only was not the sentencing judge, but who had been formally recused ... due to an actual conflict.” The letter, submitted by Judge Moreno, strongly objected to the relief requested by Rodriguez.

The BOP’s decision, based in large part on Judge Moreno’s letter, was significant because Rodriguez was still in state prison at the time of his federal conviction, and the “federal sentence was silent about whether it should run concurrently with or consecutively to the yet-to-be-imposed sentences for the new pending state charges and parole revocation.”

Rodriguez faced federal charges – and was sentenced to 272 months in prison – for assaulting U.S. District Court Judge Shelby Highsmith during a home invasion robbery. Judge Moreno served in the same judicial district as Highsmith, who passed away due to unrelated causes in December 2015.

The appellate court found that a “nunc pro tunc designation [by the BOP] would shorten Rodriguez’s federal sentence by approximately three years.” The Court of Appeals made clear that the conditions for recusal are specific and meant to prevent any adverse inferences in a case where there was either an apparent or actual conflict. Further, the Court stated, “there is no way that this error can be deemed harmless in as much as the [BOP] specifically cited and relied on the Moreno letter in denying Rodriguez’s application.”

“We reverse and remand for the district court to grant the writ and to direct the Bureau of Prisons to reconsider, within 30 days, Rodriguez’s application for nunc pro tunc designation, and to do so without regard to Chief Judge Moreno’s letter,” the Ninth Circuit concluded. See: Rodriguez v. Copenhaver, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9559 (9th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Rodriguez v. Copenhaver