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Fifth Circuit Holds Louisiana Prisoner May Sue Over Failure to Credit Good Time

On January 1, 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Louisiana prisoner may sue prison officials for failing to credit him with good conduct time which would have shortened his sentence.

State prisoner Kenneth Owens was sentenced to thirty years at hard labor on January 4, 1989. Under La. Stat. Ann. § 571.3, he was eligible to receive good time credits for good behavior, labor or self-improvement activities. He signed a form, effective April 27, 1988, to receive “double” good time – thirty days of good time for every thirty days served – instead of incentive wages. In 1997 and 2003 he signed similar forms, which were dated effective January 5, 1997.

Owens complained that the effective date should have been his sentencing date: January 4, 1989. He exhausted his state administrative remedies seeking correction of the effective date, then filed a petition for an emergency state writ of habeas corpus.

The trial court dismissed the petition and Owens appealed. The Court of Appeals held that pursuant to Cox v. Whitley, 612 So.2d 158 (La. Ct. App. 1992), prisoners who were sentenced after July 1, 1982, and who were otherwise eligible for diminution of sentence, were eligible to receive double good time credits from the date of their sentencing regardless of any subsequent statutes limiting double good time credits or any forms signed by the prisoners. Thus, the appellate court reversed and remanded the case, and the prison system credited Owens with double good time credits from the date of his sentence – a total of 1,256 days. This resulted in his release from prison.

Owens then filed a federal civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials had subjected him to false imprisonment and violated his rights under the 14th Amendment by failing to properly calculate his good time credits, thus preventing his early release from custody.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity. The magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation (R&R) that the district court deny the motion. The defendants did not object to the R&R, which was adopted in relevant part by the court.

The defendants then filed an interlocutory appeal. The Fifth Circuit noted that, because the defendants had failed to object to the magistrate’s R&R, appellate review was limited to whether the district court committed plain error in denying summary judgment based on a qualified immunity defense.

The Court of Appeals held the due process clause of the 14th Amendment is implicated when a prisoner is held after the legal authority to imprison him has expired. Those due process rights extend to statutory good time credits. Additionally, Cox had established that Owens’ good time was objectively unreasonable under clearly established law; therefore, the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, and the fact that Owens’ release had subsequently been revoked did not change that fact.

The judgment of the district court was affirmed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Owens v. Stalder, 638 Fed. Appx. 277 (5th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Owens v. Stalder