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Stokes v. United States Parole Commission

July 16, 2004

CEDRIC STOKES A/K/A ABDUS SALAAM MUHAMMED, APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES PAROLE COMMISSION, APPELLEE



Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 00cv03075)

Before: Ginsburg, Chief Judge, and Randolph and Roberts, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ginsburg, Chief Judge

Argued December 8, 2003

Cedric Stokes challenges the district court's denial of his habeas corpus petition, brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. In his petition Stokes claimed the United States Parole Commission violated the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution of the United States by denying him parole and determining his parole rehearing date on the basis of regulations and guidelines promulgated after the crimes of which he was convicted. On appeal, another panel of this Court concluded the district court lacked jurisdiction over the proper respondent. When Stokes petitioned for rehearing, however, that panel vacated its earlier decision. For the following reasons, we reverse the judgment of the district court insofar as it purported to exercise jurisdiction over Stokes's petition, and remand this case with directions to dismiss his petition without prejudice.

I. Background

In 1987 Stokes was convicted in District of Columbia Superior Court of various violations of the D.C. Code. He was sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 10-30 and of 8- 24 years and to a term of 2-6 years to be served concurrently.

Since August 2000 the United States Parole Commission has been responsible for making parole determinations with respect to District of Columbia prisoners. See D.C. Code § 24-131(a)(1); National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 § 11231, Pub. L. 105-33, 111 Stat. 712; Fletcher v. District of Columbia et al., 370 F.3d 1223, (D.C. Cir. 2004). In October 2000 the Commission denied Stokes parole and put off any rehearing for 48 months. Each decision represented a departure from the Commission's guidelines adverse to Stokes.

Under those guidelines a prisoner with Stokes's "Base Point Score" is ordinarily paroled; if such a prisoner is denied parole, then the guidelines recommend he be given a rehearing in 12-18 months. The Commission explained that it departed from the guidelines because it believed Stokes posed an "unusual risk to the safety of the community." The Commission noted in this regard that Stokes was sentenced for his "involvement in 3 separate assaults with a deadly weapon over a period of 7 months," including an incident during which he "brutally beat the victim in his head with a shovel, causing serious bodily injury."

Stokes, who is now in a federal facility in South Carolina but was then incarcerated in a private prison in Ohio, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. In his habeas petition he argued the application to him of the Commission's parole guidelines violated the Ex Post Facto Clause because the guidelines were promulgated by the Commission and made applicable to D.C. Code offenders after the conduct for which he was incarcerated. The Commission opposed Stokes's petition, arguing, among other things, that the district court lacked personal jurisdiction over the only proper respondent -- the warden of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center -- and, in any event, the Ex Post Facto claim lacked merit.

After a procedural detour of no concern here, the district court ultimately denied Stokes's petition because he had not shown "application of the Parole Commission's regulations `yields results materially harsher than those ordinarily occurring under the prior regime.' " Dist. Ct. Mem. Op. at 3, citing Blair-Bey v. Quick, 159 F.3d 591, 592 (D.C. Cir. 1998). The district court granted a certificate of appealability, however, because "the precise application of the Constitution's prohibition against ex post facto laws to Parole Commission regulations" was then still unresolved in this circuit.*fn1

On appeal, a different panel of this Court held the district court lacked jurisdiction over the warden of the Ohio facility in which Stokes was incarcerated; his petition should therefore have been dismissed. The court also noted Stokes could refile his claim in a judicial district with jurisdiction over the warden of the Ohio correctional center. Upon Stokes's petition for rehearing, we vacated that judgment and invited the District of Columbia to participate as an amicus curiae. The District of Columbia is of the view that the district court had jurisdiction over Stokes's habeas petition but takes no position on the merits of the claims presented therein.

II. Analysis

District courts may grant habeas relief only "within their respective jurisdictions." 28 U.S.C. § 2241(a). Because "[a] writ of habeas corpus does not act upon the prisoner who seeks relief, but upon the person who holds him in ... custody," Braden v. 30th Judicial Cir. Ct. of Ky., 410 U.S. 484, 494 (1973), a court may issue the writ only if it has jurisdiction over that person. See Padilla v. Rumsfeld, 2004 WL 1432135, at *5, *9, 542 U.S., (June 28, 2004).

As an initial matter, it is clear the only proper respondent to Stokes's habeas petition was his "immediate custodian" --that is, the warden of the Ohio facility in which he was incarcerated at the time he filed the petition. See Padilla, 2004 WL 1432135, at *5, 542 U.S. at; see also Blair-Bey v. Quick, 151 F.3d 1036, 1039 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ("When a prisoner seeks to challenge parole-related decisions, the warden of the prison ... is the prisoner's `custodian' "); Chatman-Bey v. Thornburgh, 864 F.2d 804, 810-11 ...


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