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Ramsey v. United States Parole Commission

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

November 4, 2016

Charles W. Ramsey, Jr., Appellant
United States Parole Commission, Appellee

          Argued September 22, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:13-cv-01003)

          Beverly G. Dyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender, argued the cause for the appellant. A.J. Kramer, Federal Public Defender, was with her on the briefs.

          Daniel J. Lenerz, Assistant United States Attorney, argued the cause for the appellee. Elizabeth Trosman and John P. Mannarino, Assistant United States Attorneys, were with him on the brief.

          Before: Henderson and Millett, Circuit Judges, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.


          Karen LeCraft Henderson, Circuit Judge.

         "The essence of parole is release from prison, before the completion of sentence, on the condition that the prisoner abide by certain rules during the balance of the sentence." Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 477 (1972). But what if the parolee breaks the rules? More specifically, what happens if he commits a new offense? In the federal system, the United States Parole Commission (Commission) can revoke the offender's parole and order that he serve all or some of the remaining sentence in prison. The Commission can also retrospectively deny him credit for the time he has served on parole-his "street time"-so that his remaining sentence is the same as it was when he was released on parole.

         These general principles guide our resolution of Charles Ramsey's appeal. In the 1970s, Ramsey was convicted of drug and firearm offenses for which he was sentenced to a total of 32 years in federal prison. In the 1980s, he was paroled and released from prison. In the 1990s, he violated the conditions of his parole by committing a new drug offense. He pleaded guilty to the 1990s offense pursuant to a plea agreement that said nothing about his past offenses, parole or street time. In this case, he filed a habeas corpus petition in which he argued that the plea agreement, as construed by the Southern District of West Virginia, terminated his parole or at least prohibited the Commission from using his 1990s offense to deny him credit for street time or for other parole-related purposes. Unpersuaded, the district court denied his habeas petition. 82 F.Supp.3d 293 (D.D.C. 2015). We, too, reject his reading of the plea agreement and accordingly uphold the denial of his petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Federal Parole System

         The Congress abolished parole for federal offenders in 1984, effective November 1, 1987. Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Pub. L. No. 98-473, §§ 218(a)(5), 235(a)(1), 98 Stat. 1987, 2027, 2031 (Oct. 12, 1984); Sentencing Reform Amendments Act of 1985, Pub. L. No. 99-217, § 4, 99 Stat. 1728, 1728 (Dec. 26, 1985); see Gozlon-Peretz v. United States, 498 U.S. 395, 400 n.4 (1991). Remnants linger, however, because repeal did not affect offenders convicted before November 1987. Sentencing Reform Act § 235(b)(1)(A), 98 Stat. at 2032. Chapter 311 of title 18 continues to govern parole for such offenders. 18 U.S.C. §§ 4201-4218; see United States Parole Commission Extension Act of 2013, Pub. L. No. 113-47, § 2, 127 Stat. 572, 572 (Oct. 31, 2013) (extending parole system through October 2018).

         As relevant here, section 4203 gives the Commission the power to "grant or deny an application or recommendation to parole any eligible prisoner[, ]" 18 U.S.C. § 4203(b)(1), and to "modify or revoke an order paroling any eligible prisoner[, ]" id. § 4203(b)(3). Section 4209 provides that, "[i]n every case, the Commission shall impose as conditions of parole that the parolee not commit another Federal, State, or local crime [and] that the parolee not possess illegal controlled substances . . . ." Id. § 4209(a). Section 4210(b)(2) applies to an offender who, having been released on parole, is "convicted of any criminal offense . . . punishable by a term of imprisonment, detention or incarceration in any penal facility . . . ." Id. § 4210(b)(2). In such a case, "the Commission shall determine . . . whether all or any part of the unexpired term being served at the time of parole shall run concurrently or consecutively with the sentence imposed for the new offense . . . ." Id. Section 4211 gives the Commission authority to grant "[e]arly termination of parole" but only "[u]pon its own motion or upon request of the parolee . . . ." Id. § 4211(a). Section 4213 provides that "[i]f any parolee is alleged to have violated his parole, the Commission may" summon him to appear at a revocation hearing or "issue a warrant and retake" him. Id. § 4213(a)(1)-(2). Section 4214(d) provides that when a parolee is summoned or retaken and the Commission finds that he has violated a condition of his parole, the Commission may "restore the parolee to supervision, " "reprimand" him, "modify" the conditions of his parole, "refer [him] to a residential community treatment center, " "release" him "as if on parole" or "formally revoke parole." Id. § 4214(d).

         The Commission's regulations are codified in 28 C.F.R. Part 2. Section 2.20 establishes guidelines that "indicate the customary range of time to be served [in prison] before release for various combinations of offense (severity) and offender (parole prognosis) characteristics." 28 C.F.R. § 2.20(b). Section 2.20's table of ranges is akin to the sentencing table of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. See U.S. Sentencing Comm'n, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual ch. 5, pt. A (2015). The vertical axis in section 2.20 is divided into eight categories based on "Offense characteristics: Severity of offense behavior." 28 C.F.R. § 2.20. The horizontal axis is divided into four categories based on "Offender characteristics: Parole prognosis, " also known as the offender's "salient factor score." Id. The shortest guideline range, stated in months, is "≤4." Id. The longest is "180." Id. Pursuant to section 2.21, the guidelines in section 2.20 apply when the Commission considers reparoling an offender whose parole has been revoked. Id. § 2.21(b). Section 2.21 makes clear that the guidelines are just that: non-binding recommendations. Id. § 2.21(d) ("The above are merely guidelines. A decision outside these guidelines (either above or below) may be made when circumstances warrant.").

         Finally, section 2.52 governs the Commission's "[r]evocation decisions." Section 2.52(b) provides that, when the Commission revokes parole, it "shall also determine, on the basis of the revocation hearing, whether reparole is warranted or whether the prisoner should be continued for further review." 28 C.F.R. § 2.52(b). Section 2.52(c) sets forth "the Commission's interpretation of 18 U.S.C. 4210(b)(2)." Id. § 2.52(c)(2). The Commission's interpretation is that

if a parolee has been convicted of a new offense committed subsequent to his release on parole, which is punishable by any term of imprisonment, detention, or incarceration in any penal facility, forfeiture of time from the date of such release to the date of execution of the warrant is an automatic statutory penalty, and such time shall not be credited to the service of the sentence.

         B. Ramsey's Parole

         With the foregoing provisions in mind, we recap Ramsey's odyssey through the parole system.

         1. Ramsey's 1970s offenses and 32-year sentence

         In February 1975, Ramsey began serving a maximum aggregate prison sentence of 32 years for importation of a controlled substance, unlawful possession of firearms and related offenses of which he was convicted in three federal cases in the District of Columbia (D.C.) and the Southern District of New York. His 32-year term was to be followed by six years of "special parole, " the pre-Sentencing Reform Act equivalent of supervised release. 28 C.F.R. § 2.57(a) (describing special parole as "an additional period of supervision which commences upon completion of any period on parole or mandatory release supervision from the regular sentence"); see United States v. Todd, 287 F.3d 1160, 1161 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

         In May 1989, Ramsey was released on parole with about 17 years and nine months left of his 32-year term. Consistent with 18 U.S.C. § 4209(a), one of the conditions of his parole provided in part: "You shall not violate any law." United States' Resp. to Def.'s Mot. to Amend or Correct Sentence, Dkt. No. 3, Ex. 3 at 3. Another condition prohibited him from possessing drugs. Id.

         2. Ramsey's 1995 cocaine offense and ...

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