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Wyoming Supreme Court Affirms Dismissal of Prisoner Lawsuit Challenging New Mandatory Deductions and Good Time Laws

On October 18, 2016, a unanimous Wyoming Supreme Court approved the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a state prisoner challenging the constitutionality of several Wyoming statutes relating to mandatory deductions from prisoner earnings and the denial of good time -- as those laws apply to those serving life sentences. The prisoner had argued that he should be exempt from the deductions due to his life sentences and, if not, he should conversely receive good time. The court rejected both claims.

Chester Loyde Bird received two "life sentences according to law" in the mid-1990s to run concurrently. In 2010, the Wyoming legislature amended Wyo. Stat. Ann. Sect. 7-16-205(a)(i), as it relates to requiring a portion of a prisoner's earnings to be deducted and placed in to a savings account, to be distributed upon the prisoner's release. Bird filed suit to challenge the statute's application to him, as, absent commutation of his sentence, he will not be released and thus should be exempt from the deductions.

The state's high court, however, disagreed and upheld the ruling of the district court dismissing this claim. By the law's plain language, only those serving a sentence of death or life without parole are exempt from the deduction statute. Bird argued that his sentences were equivalent to a life sentence with no parole, and that the statute violates the constitution's Equal Protection Clause as it treats similarly situated person differently.

However, the Supreme Court held that Bird is not in fact similarly situated, because unlike a life sentence without parole, under Wyoming law Bird has the chance to receive commutation of his sentence or a pardon. Because he has a "prospect" for release, the court held the statute applied to Bird and upheld the dismissal of this claim.

Bird's other claim in his lawsuit was a challenge to the state's good time law, again as it applies to those serving a "life sentence according to law." If the mandatory deductions statute applied to him, Bird reasoned, then he should be eligible for good time because of his chance for release. Bird argued that the state's good time policy violated the Equal Protection Clause because he is similarly situated to prisoners serving a sentence of a term of years. But he court rejected that argument, too.

Because commutations and pardons are "acts of grace" and prisoner has no vested right in them, "life according to law prisoners are not similarly situated to those serving a term of years," the court held. Thus, "the district court appropriately dismissed this allegation of Mr. Bird's complaint."

Finally the court rejected Bird's contention that amendment of the mandatory deductions statute repealed by implication a state law that precludes prisoners serving life sentences from being eligible for parole considersation. In essence, Bird argued that "there would be no reason to require prisoners serving life according to law to save their earnings in the event they are released if the legislature did not intend for those prisoners to be parole eligible and subject to release at some future date."

Finding that the two statutes "are not repugnant to each other," are aimed at different subjects, and "both can operate independently without interference with the other," the court found "no repeal by implication" and affirmed the district court's dismissal. See: Bird v. Wyoming Board of Parole, et al., No. S-16-0105 (S. Ct. WY), October 18, 2016.

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Related legal case

Bird v. Wyoming Board of Parole