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Illinois Supreme Court Ruling Explores Scope of Second Amendment

January 31, 2014

On September 12, 2013, in People v. Aguilar, the Illinois Supreme Court held that Illinois’s blanket prohibition of the concealed carry of a firearm in public in its aggravated unlawful use of weapons (“AUUW”) statute (720 ILCS 5/24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A) (West 2008)) violated the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but that the portion of Illinois’s unlawful possession of a firearm (“UPF”) statute ((720 ILCS 5/24-3.1(a)(1) (West 2008)) that prohibited the possession of firearms by minors did not.1  Upon denial of rehearing on December 19, 2013, the Court modified its opinion and clarified that its holding was limited to the “Class 4” form of the specified AUUW violation, leaving unanswered the question of whether other “classes” of a similar AUUW violation (such as a “Class 2” violation of the statute by a felon) would also be deemed unconstitutional and leading two Justices to dissent from the majority opinion, which was previously unanimous.2

The Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling came on the heels of (and largely adopted) the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Moore v. Madigan, 702 F.3d 933 (7th Cir. 2012), which similarly found that the AUUW’s blanket prohibition on concealed carry of a firearm in public was unconstitutional.  While the practical effect of the Court’s ruling was largely mooted by the Illinois legislature’s enactment afterMoore of the Firearm Concealed Carry Act (see Pub. Act 98-0063 (eff. July 9, 2013)), which amended the AUUW to allow for a limited right to carry certain firearms in public, the ruling nevertheless provides insight into the outcome of future challenges to Illinois laws restricting and regulating the personal use of firearms.

I.  Factual Background

At issue in Aguilar were defendant’s second amendment challenges to his conviction for violating two Illinois gun control laws.3  Police arrested defendant (who was then 17 years old) after they had investigated a group of teenagers who were making disturbances and observed defendant with a gun in his hand.  At the time of this observation (and his arrest), defendant was in his friend’s backyard.4  Defendant was charged with and convicted of violating the Class 4 form of section 24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A), (d) of the AUUW statute (prohibiting the concealed carrying of a loaded firearm anywhere other than “his or her land or in his or her abode or fixed place of business”) and section 24-3.1(a)(1) of the UPF statute (prohibiting the possession of “any firearm of a size which may be concealed upon the person” by anyone under 18 years of age).5  The trial court sentenced defendant to 24 months’ probation for the AUUW conviction and did not impose any sentence on the UPF conviction.6  Defendant appealed his convictions and the appellate court affirmed.7

II. Standing Challenge

Before addressing the constitutionality of the two Illinois statutes at issue, the Illinois Supreme Court first rejected the State’s argument that defendant lacked standing to assert a constitutional challenge to these statutes.8  The State’s position was that to have standing defendant must show that “he was engaged in conduct that enjoys second amendment protection” and that he could not do so because “the conduct involved in this case, namely, possessing a loaded, defaced, and illegally modified handgun on another person’s property without consent, enjoys no such protection.”9  In rejecting the State’s argument, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that defendant was not arguing that these statutes as applied in this case were unconstitutional, rather he was arguing that they facially violated the second amendment and could not be enforced against anyone.10  It further stated, “If anyone has standing to challenge the validity of these sections, it is defendant.  Or to put it another way, if defendant does not have standing to challenge the validity of these sections, then no one does.”11

III. Second Amendment Challenge to the AUUW Statute

After disposing of the State’s standing argument, the Illinois Supreme Court first tackled the constitutionality of the Class 4 form of section 24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A), (d) of the AUUW statute.  To do so, it looked to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) (holding that a District Columbia law banning handgun possession in the home violated the second amendment) and McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 3020 (2010) (holding that second amendment right recognized in Heller is applicable to the states through the due process class of the fourteenth amendment and striking down similar laws that banned the possession of handguns in the home).12  The Illinois Supreme Court noted that Illinois appellate courts previously upholding the constitutionality of the Class 4 form of section 24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A), (d) had uniformly read Heller and McDonaldto hold only that the second amendment protects the right to possess a handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense and that neither Hellernor McDonald expressly recognized a right to keep and bear arms outside the home.13

The Illinois Supreme Court also noted, however, that less than a year earlier, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Moore v. Madigan, 702 F.3d 933 (7thCir. 2012) applied the broader principles that informed Heller and McDonald to find that section 24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A) (the same Illinois provision at issue inAguilar) violated the second amendment.14  In summarizing the Seventh Circuit’s holding and rationale in Moore, the Illinois Supreme Court cited to several portions of that opinion that stated that the clear implication of Hellerand McDonald is that the constitutional right of armed self-defense is broader than the right to have a gun in one’s home.15  The Illinois Supreme Court also cited to the Seventh Circuit’s discussion in Moore of the fact that the second amendment guarantees not only the right to “keep” arms, but also the right to “bear” arms, and that the latter must imply a right to carry a loaded gun outside the home if it is to be read (as it should be) as being distinct from the former.16

Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the prior Illinois appellate court decisions and adopted the Seventh Circuit’s analysis in Moore.  It stated:  “As the Seventh Circuit correctly noted, neither Heller nor McDonald expressly limits the second amendment’s protections to the home.  On the contrary, both decisions contain language strongly suggesting if not outright confirming that the second amendment right to keep and bear arms extends beyond the home.”17  Although it concluded in no uncertain terms “that the second amendment protects the right to possess and use a firearm for self defense outside the home,” the Illinois Supreme Court was careful to state that it was “in no way saying that such a right is unlimited or is not subject to meaningful regulation.”18  The issue of what would constitute “meaningful regulation” was not, however, before the Illinois Supreme Court as it concluded that the statute at issue “categorically prohibits the possession and use of an operable firearm for self-defense outside the home.”19  Accordingly, the Court reversed defendant’s conviction of the Class 4 form of section 24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A), (d) of the AUUW.20

Notably, after the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Moore, but before the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Aguilar, the Illinois General Assembly enacted the Firearm Concealed Carry Act, which amended the AUUW statute to allow for a limited right to carry certain firearms in public.21  The Illinois Supreme Court noted this change in the law but specifically refrained from commenting on the Act or the amended AUUW statute because it was not at issue in the case before it.22

IV. Second Amendment Challenge to the UPF Statute

Having concluded that defendant’s conviction under the AUUW statute should be reversed, the Illinois Supreme Court next turned to defendant’s challenge to his UPF conviction under section 24-3.1(a)(1) for possession of a firearm by a minor.23  Defendant argued that the right to keep and bear arms extended to persons younger than 18 years of age and, in support, pointed to the fact that historically many colonies required people as young as 15 years of age to “bear arms” for purposes of militia service.24

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected defendant’s argument.  In reaching its holding, the court cited to specific language in Heller where the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized that its opinion should not cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by certain categories of people (e.g., felons or the mentally ill) or in certain sensitive locations (e.g., schools and government buildings).25  While prohibitions on the possession of firearms by minors was not one of the specific examples enumerated in Heller, the Illinois Supreme Court surveyed several other courts that have upheld such prohibitions and found that while historically many colonies permitted orrequired minors to possess firearms for purposes of militia service, nothing like a right for minors to own firearms has ever existed.26  Relying on the rationale and historical evidence espoused by these other courts, the Illinois Supreme Court stated its “agreement with the obvious and undeniable conclusion that the possession of handguns by minors is conduct that falls outside of the scope of the second amendment’s protection.”27  Thus, the Court affirmed defendant’s conviction under 24-3.1(a)(1) and remanded the case to the trial court for imposition of sentence on the UPF conviction.28

V. The Denial of Rehearing and Dissenting Opinions

The Court’s initial opinion issued on September 12, 2013 was unanimous.  The State petitioned for rehearing, arguing that the AUUW sections at issue were not facially unconstitutional because, looking to the sentencing provisions in the AUUW, they can be applied to felons without violating the second amendment in its “Class 2” form of the offense.29  On December 19, 2013, the Court denied the State’s petition, but modified its original opinion to make it clear that it was only addressing the “Class 4 form” of the AUUW statute, which applied to anyone who violated the statute with no aggravating circumstances (e.g. prior offense, prior conviction of a felony).30  Other than the insertion of “Class 4 form of” in front of every AUUW citation, the opinion remained virtually unchanged.  The denial of rehearing and the insertion of this clarifying language, however, led two Justices to dissent to the new majority opinion.

Chief Justice Garman dissented from the denial of rehearing because, in her view, the State “fundamentally redefined the issue presented in this case” in its petition for rehearing.31  While she acknowledged that this fact may typically weigh against rehearing, she wrote, “[G]iven the constitutional nature of the issue and the potential far-reaching consequences of our decision, I would prefer to resolve this question after more deliberation.”32  Justice Theis also dissented from the modified majority opinion and denial of rehearing, stating that “the majority seeks to dramatically alter the issue in this case” by “consider[ing] not only the elements of the offense of AUUW in determining the constitutionality of the statute, but also incorporat[ing] the sentencing provisions into its constitutional analysis.”33 While questioning the “unintended consequences” of conflating the distinctions between the elements of an offense and the factors relevant to enhancing a sentence, Justice Theis took issue with the fact that the majority never explained why the class of sentence has any bearing on the constitutional question and noted that neither the Seventh Circuit decision in Moore nor the Illinois appellate decisions relied on and cited by the majority mention the words “Class 4 form” at all.34  Given this decision’s “ momentous import to the litigants and to the people of this state,” Justice Theis concluded that the “majority’s new analysis leaves too many questions unresolved” to not warrant rehearing and an opportunity for the parties to argue about whether the court’s new constitutional analysis should cause it to reconsider the determination that the AUUW statute is facially unconstitutional.35

 

*Tara A. Fumerton is a partner in the law firm Jones Day.  This article represents the view of the author solely, and not the view of Jones Day, its partners, employees, or agents.

 

Endnotes

1  People v. Aguilar, 2013 IL 112116, __N.E.2d__, 2013 Ill. LEXIS 1626 (Ill. Sept. 12, 2013) (petition for rehearing denied).

2  Aguilar, 2013 IL 112116, ¶22, n.3.

3  Id. at ¶¶1, 11.

4  Id. at ¶¶3-7.

5  Id. at ¶¶7, 15, 25.

6  Id. at ¶7.

7  Id.

8  Id. at ¶¶11-12.

9  Id. at ¶11.

10  Id. at ¶12.

11  Id.

12  Id. at ¶¶15-18.

13  Id. at ¶18.

14  Id. at ¶19.

15  Id.

16  Id.

17  Id. at ¶20.

18  Id. at ¶21.

19  Id.

20  Id. at ¶21.

21  See Pub. Act 98-0063 (eff. July 9, 2013).

22  Aguilar, 2013 IL 112116, ¶22 n.4.

23  Id. at ¶¶24-25.

24  Id. ¶25.

25  Id. at ¶26 (quoting Heller, 554 U.S. at 626).

26  Id. at ¶27.

27  Id.

28  Id. ¶¶28-30.

29  Id. at ¶36 (Garman, J., dissenting).

30  Id. at ¶22 n.3 (majority opinion); see also 720 ILCS 5/24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A), (d) (West 2008).

31  Id. at ¶33 (Garman, J., dissenting).

32  Id. 

33  Id. at ¶40 (Theis, J., dissenting).

34  Id. at ¶44-45 (Theis, J., dissenting).

35  Id. at ¶48 (Theis, J., dissenting).

 

Illinois Supreme Court Ruling Explores Scope of Second Amendment

Washington Supreme Court Addresses Constitutionality of Water Pollution Control Mandate

January 31, 2014

In Lemire v. Department of Ecology (2013),1 the Washington Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of an order made pursuant to the State’s Water Pollution Control Act (“WPCA”).  Lemire offers the Washington Supreme Court’s latest take on evidentiary standards for reviewing administrative agency actions that affect property rights.

I. Background

At issue in Lemire was an administrative order issued by the Washington Department of Ecology (“Department”) to cattle rancher Joseph Lemire pursuant to the WPCA.2  The Department directed Lemire to take steps—namely constructing livestock fencing and off-stream water facilities to eliminate livestock access to the stream corridor—to curb activities it determined were polluting a creek that runs through Lemire’s property.

Lemire challenged the order but the Pollution Control Hearings Board (“Board”) upheld it on summary judgment.  However, on administrative appeal the Columbia County Superior Court reversed the judgment and invalidated the Department’s order.  In its decision, the Superior Court ruled the Department’s order was unsupported by substantial evidence and constituted a taking.  Division Three of the Washington Court of Appeals certified the case directly to the Washington Supreme Court for review.

By an 8-1 vote, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court on all counts. In an opinion written by Justice Debra Stephens,3 the majority held that the Department acted within its authority, the order was supported by substantial evidence, and Lemire failed to establish that a taking occurred.

II. Majority Opinion: Substantial Evidence Analysis

The evidence presented by the Department at the administrative hearing consisted of reports of four visits to Lemire’s property by a Department employee between 2003 and 2008, as well as four visits to his property in 2009. Reported conditions at the property included “livestock with direct access to the creek, overgrazing of the riparian corridor, manure in the stream corridor, inadequate vegetation, bare ground, erosion, cattle trails across the creek, trampled stream banks, and cattle wallowing in the creek.”

Addressing this, Justice Stephens’ opinion noted that the Department’s expert had “described via declaration how these conditions tend to cause pollution.”4The declaration also stated that Washington State’s water quality assessment report to Congress—required by the federal Clean Water Act—listed the creek as polluted. The majority continued that even when viewing the record in the light most favorable to Lemire, the evidence still supports a grant of summary judgment to the Department.  It reasoned that the observations of cattle access to the stream on Lemire’s property was  “consistent with the kind of pollution found in the stream, such as sediment content, fecal coliform, and other disturbances of the water quality” and this was all the Department was required to prove.5

This can be distinguished from the Superior Court decision, which emphasized that “[t]he record is absolutely absent of any evidence-direct evidence-that Mr. Lemire’s modest herd actually polluted Pataha Creek.”6  The Supreme Court applied a different standard than the lower court, ruling that the statute at issue “does not require it [the Department] to prove causation” and that it was sufficient that the Department’s  “expert declaration provided evidence that the current condition of Pataha Creek is polluted.”7 The court rejected arguments that causation is a question of fact and stated rather that “the ‘causation’ contemplated by the statutes is the likelihood that organic or inorganic matter will cause or tend to cause pollution.”8

III. Majority Opinion: Takings Analysis

The court also rejected Lemire’s argument that the fence he was required to construct on his property amounted to a taking by depriving him of the economic use of his land.  Specifically, Lemire had argued the fence was a taking because it prevented his cattle from grazing pasturelands on the far side of the creek and his exercise of stock water rights.

The majority opinion did not consider “whether and to what extent our state constitutional takings provision may offer greater protection than its federal counterpart,” since, they reasoned, “no factual basis existed for finding a taking.”9 The majority concluded that none of the evidence in the record suggested the Department’s order would restrict cattle from any access to the creek, the record was devoid of evidence regarding stock water rights, and Lemire had conceded that his claim of economic loss is “neither a physical invasion nor a regulatory taking.”10

IV. Dissent

The sole dissenter in the case, Justice James Johnson, asserted that “the majority disregards constitutionally protected private property rights, and bases its decision on credibility judgments and factual findings.”11

Specifically, Justice Johnson contended that “the majority assumed that [the Department of] Ecology’s allegations are gospel truth and summarily dismissed the statements in Lemire’s declaration that counter [the Department of] Ecology’s claims as ‘conclusory allegations.’”12 Justice Johnson examined Lemire’s responses to the Department’s allegations, and concluded that several issues of fact remained.  He argued that because the Washington Administrative Procedure Act requires that this type of appeal to be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party13 and Lemire’s statements “amount to much more than ‘conclusory allegations,’’14 there were “genuine issues of material fact about whether or not the conditions [the Department of] Ecology’s witness (not a qualified ‘expert’) allegedly observed are present.”15

Justice Johnson also took issue with the majority’s application of the WPCA, asserting that the majority’s and Board’s approach was inconsistent with what the drafters of the statute intended.16

With respect to takings, Justice Johnson asserted that “to make it clear that the ‘question’ of whether or not our state constitutional takings provision offers greater protection than its federal counterpart has already been answered in the affirmative,” and cited two cases in support of this proposition.17 Pointing to the Washington Constitution Article I, Section 16’s provision that “[n]o private property shall be taken or damaged for public or private use without just compensation having been first made,” Justice Johnson maintained that “[t]he extent of this greater protection has not yet been fully delineated in all contexts.”18

Justice Johnson determined there was insufficient record evidence to establish a per se taking under Washington jurisprudence, reasoning that it was “possible that Lemire’s property has been ‘damaged’ by the order, but there is not enough evidence in the record to establish the type and magnitude of this damage.”19 Nonetheless, Justice Johnson premised his takings analysis on an apparent clarification or change in the Department’s interpretation of its order’s effect.20

V. Conclusion

Lemire did not establish any new jurisprudential doctrines or significantly expand on existing ones. But the opinion is noteworthy because it provides the Washington Supreme Court’s latest gloss on evidentiary requirements and burdens for judicial review of administrative agency orders affecting private property.

 

*Seth L. Cooper is an attorney in Washington State. In 2005-06 he served as a judicial law clerk at the Washington Supreme Court.

 

Endnotes

1  Lemire v. Department of Ecology, No. 87703-3 (Wash. Aug. 15, 2013).

2  Wash. Rev. Code § 90.48.

3  Justice Stephens’ opinion was joined by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, by Justices Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst, Charlie Wiggins, Steven Gonzalez, and by Justice Pro Tempore Tom Chambers.

4  Lemire v. Department of Ecology, No. 87703-3, slip op. at 7 (Wash. Aug. 15, 2013) (majority opinion).

5  Id. at 9.

6  Id. 9 (internal citation omitted).  The Superior Court stated, “There’s no testing, there’s no showing, there’s no increased numbers, there’s nothing.”

7  Id. at 10.

8  Id. (internal citation omitted).

9  Id. at 16 (citing U.S. Const. amend. V; Wash. Const., art. I, § 16).

10  Id. at 17.

11  Lemire v. Department of Ecology, No. 87703-3, slip op. at 2, (Wash. Aug. 15, 2013) (Johnson, J., dissenting).

12  Id. at 5.

13  Id. at 3 (citing chapter Wash. Rev. Code § 34.05 (internal citartion omitted)).

14  Id. at 13.

15  Id. at 13.

16  Id. at 11-12 (citing Wash. Rev. Code § 90.48.120(1)) (“According to the Board and the majority, in order for a rancher to create a “substantial potential” to pollute, all the rancher has to do is (1) have a state water body on his or her property that is not completely fenced off and (2) own cattle that occasionally cross or drink from the water body. That is it. Nothing else needs to be proved but those facts. Surely, that cannot be what the 1945 legislature intended by “substantial potential to violate.”).

17  See id. at 15 (citing Manufactured Hous. Cmtys. of Wash. v. State, 142 Wn.2d 347, 357-361, 13 P.3d 183 (2000); Brutsche v. City of Kent164 Wn.2d 664,681 n.11, 193 P.3d 110 (2008)).

18  Id.

19  Id. at 18.

20  Id. at 17 (“If we review the order, it clearly does not make any specific provision for the cattle to drink from or cross the creek . . . To the contrary, it requires “exclusion fencing,” “off-stream watering facilities,” and that Lemire eliminate “[l]ivestock access to the stream corridor” . . . It was only later in its briefing to the superior court and before this court that Ecology finally clarified that Lemire’s cattle would be allowed to drink from and cross the stream to reach the other pasturelands; this is argument, and it contradicts the challenged order in the record.”).

 

Washington Supreme Court Addresses Constitutionality of Water Pollution Control Mandate

Rasmussen

December 28, 2011

Habeas Petitioner Denied Use of Sentence Reduction Credits

May 3, 2011

In Jones v. Keller,1 the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a prisoner’s release after the prisoner asserted he had completed his sentence through a combination of time served and sentence reduction credits. The court deferred to the Department of Corrections’ contention that the credits were awarded only for limited purposes.

Case Background

On September 1, 1976 Alford Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.2 At the time of his conviction, North Carolina law defined “life imprisonment” as “a term of 80 years in the State’s prison.”3 While serving his sentence, Jones accumulated sentence reduction credits for good behavior and by November 2009, Jones believed he had completed his 80 year sentence through a combination of jail time and credits. Accordingly, he filed a habeas corpus petition demanding his immediate release.4

The North Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) opposed Jones’ release, arguing that the credits were not intended to apply directly to Jones’ sentence. DOC argued that the credits were only to be consIdered for the limited purpose of calculating Jones’ release date if the Governor commuted his sentence from life imprisonment to a finite term of years.5 At that point, Jones’ earned time would be subtracted from his commuted sentence.

The Wayne County Superior Court, disagreeing with DOC, granted Jones’ petition and ordered his release. DOC appealed, and the North Carolina Supreme Court accepted certiorari on the issue of whether North Carolina law and DOC’s regulations mandated Jones’ release. In the event that they dId not, Jones argued that his continued incarceration would violate: (1) the due process clause; (2) the ex post facto clause; and (3) the equal protection clause.6

Jones’ Entitlement to Immediate Release

The North Carolina Supreme Court held that Jones was not entitled to release because the details of how to apply sentence credits were firmly within DOC’s discretion. The court held that the Legislature’s grant of power to the DOC to enact “provisions . . . relating to rewards . . . for good conduct [and] allowances of time for good behavior” implied the power “to determine the purposes for which that time is allowed.”7 Deeming that DOC’s construction had been reasonable, the court deferred to it.8 The majority next consIdered whether Jones’ continued incarceration would violate the federal or North Carolina constitutions.

Due Process

Jones argued that having his credits count toward his release was a constitutionally protected liberty interest of which he was deprived without legal process. While acknowledging that prisoner entitlement programs could give rise to such a right, the majority held that Jones dId not possess a liberty interest in having his credits applied “for the purpose[] of unconditional release.”9 Furthermore, they asserted, even if Jones had a liberty interest, it was “de minimis” compared to the government’s interest in keeping prisoners incarcerated “until they can be [safely] released.”10 This interest was particularly strong because Jones was convicted of first-degree murder.11 Additionally, the parole process was deemed “adequate to preserve Jones’ constitutional rights.”12

Ex Post Facto

The court held that DOC’s interpretation of Jones’ good time credits had remained constant and, thus, dId not amount to an after-the-fact increase in punishment. Because Jones could not point to any intervening law, regulation, or policy interpretation that altered his sentence, his ex post facto claim was dismissed.13

Equal Protection

Finally, Jones argued that DOC’s refusal to apply his credits toward his sentence violated his right to equal protection. Jones contended that he received a determinate sentence (80 years) and, due to DOC’s refusal to apply his credits to his release time, was treated differently from other recipients of determinate sentences.14 The court justified this distinction by stating that since Jones had committed first-degree murder, he could be treated differently than those who committed different crimes.15

Concurring Opinion

Justice Newby’s concurring opinion went farther in rejecting the petitioner’s claims in three respects. First, Justice Newby argued that the Legislature intended to preserve a natural life sentence even though it explicitly defined life sentence as “a term of 80 years.”16 Second, he opined that no life inmate sentenced under the “80 years” statute has a liberty interest in having credits applied to his or her sentence.17 He stressed that no law, regulation, or policy imbued life inmates with this interest. Finally, Justice Newby offered a more detailed equal protection analysis. He argued that Jones, a life inmate, could only be compared with other life inmates sentenced under the “80 years” statute. Therefore, because all members of this group have been denied sentence reductions based on good behavior credits, Jones’ treatment was not discriminatory.

Dissent

Justice Timmons-Goodson’s dissent criticized several points made by the majority opinion. She first discussed two North Carolina Supreme Court cases from 1978 that clearly established that a life sentence, at the time of Jones’ sentencing, constituted an 80-year period.18 DOC participated in these cases and dId not contest the issue. Its current policy appeared to have been recently crafted to prevent the imminent release of several life inmates.19

Justice Timmons-Goodson then scrutinized the majority and concurrence’s reliance on DOC’s “policy” of limited good behavior credits for life inmates. This policy was owed no deference, argued Justice Timmons-Goodson, because it was not based on any law or regulation. In fact, the policy contradicted DOC’s own regulations, which mandated distribution of sentence reduction credits except under seven defined situations, none of which applied.20 Therefore, the court was without authority to ignore the provisions’ “plain and unambiguous language.”21

Finally, the dissent emphasized the significance of Jones’ reliance on the sentence reduction credits. The United States Supreme Court has held that an alleged denial of sentence reduction credits is important enough to require some form of legal process.22 Jones’ interest was particularly important since it would determine whether Jones was to be released or not, “a question deeply implicating fundamental constitutional rights.”23

Conclusion

The North Carolina Supreme Court broadly deferred to the Department of Corrections’ ability to interpret and apply sentence reduction credits in Jones v. Keller. This resulted in the conclusion that the defendant was properly awarded credits but not allowed to use them to reduce his sentence.

 

Endnotes

1 698 S.E.2d 49 (N.C. 2010).

2 Id. at 52.

3 Id. at 53.

4 Id. at 52.

5 Id. at 54. DOC also argued that the credits were calculated for “allowing [Jones] to move to the least restrictive custody grade and to calculate his parole eligibility date.” Id.

6 Id. at 55.

7 Id.

8 See Id. at 59 (“[W]e give controlling weight to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations unless that interpretation is ‘plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.’”) (Newby, J., concurring) (emphasis in original).

9 Id. at 57.

10 Id. at 56.

11 Id.

12 Id. The dissent found this observation significant: “The majority effectively concedes that some process is due by suggesting that the parole process is sufficient.” Id. at 62 (Timmons-Goodson, J., dissenting).

13 Id. at 57.

14 Id.

15 Id. at 58.

16 Id. at 59.

17 Id. at 58.

18 Id. at 60.

19 Id.

20 Id. at 63.

21 Id.

22 See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556-67 (1974) (“It is true that the Constitution itself does not guarantee good-time credit for satisfactory behavior while in prison. But here the State itself has . . . provided a statutory right to good time. . . . [T]he State having created the right to good time . . . , the prisoner’s interest has real substance and is sufficiently embraced within Fourteenth Amendment ‘liberty’ to entitle him to those minimum procedures appropriate under the circumstances. . .”).

23 Id. at 64.