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Ray v. Madison County

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

August 16, 2017

JASON RAY
v.
MADISON COUNTY, TENNESSEE

          Session: Heard in Jackson April 6, 2017

         Rule 23 Certified Question of Law from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee No. 15-1015 J. Daniel Breen, Judge

         We accepted certification of questions of law from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, which require us to determine: (1) whether, for split confinement sentences, Tennessee law authorizes a sentencing court to fix a percentage of the sentence that a defendant must serve in actual confinement before becoming eligible to participate in a work program in the local jail or workhouse; and (2) whether Tennessee law imposes a duty on a sheriff to challenge an inmate's improper or potentially improper sentence. We conclude (1) that for split confinement sentences Tennessee trial judges are authorized to fix a percentage the defendant must serve in actual confinement before becoming eligible to earn work credits; and (2) that sheriffs in Tennessee have no duty to challenge an inmate's sentence as improper or potentially improper.

         Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 23 Certified Questions of Law

          James Bryan Moseley, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and LeAnne Thorne, Lexington, Tennessee, for the petitioner, Jason Ray.

          Nathan D. Tilly, and James I. Pentecost, Jackson, Tennessee, for the respondent, Madison County, Tennessee.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Charlotte Davis, Assistant Attorney General, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter.

          Jerry N. Estes, Nashville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.

          Joe Atnip and Patrick G. Frogge, Nashville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Public Defenders Conference.

          Richard Lewis Tennent, Nashville, Tennessee, and Sara Compher Rice, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

          Brennan M. Wingerter, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, Tennessee Sheriffs' Association.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[1]

         The certified questions of law at issue in this appeal arise from a lawsuit Jason Ray brought in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee ("District Court") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Mr. Ray alleged that his civil rights were violated when his sentence was not reduced by the work credits he earned as a trusty[2] while confined in the Madison County, Tennessee jail ("Jail") on his split confinement sentence.[3] Mr. Ray's confinement in the Jail resulted from his plea of guilty on June 3, 2013, to theft of property over $60, 000, a Class B felony. Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-14-103, -105(a)(5) (2014 & Supp. 2016). Class B felonies have an overall sentencing range of eight to thirty years, id. § 40-35-111(b)(2) (2014), [4] with Range I offenders, like Mr. Ray, subject to a range of eight to twelve years, id. § 40-35-112(a)(2). Mr. Ray received a ten-year sentence, but the trial court ordered only eleven months and twenty-nine days served in confinement at the Jail and ordered the remainder of the sentence served on supervised probation. This type of sentence, known as "split confinement" or "shock probation, " is considered valuable "in combining both incarceration and rehabilitation as part of a sentencing program." Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306 (2014), Sentencing Comm'n Cmts.;[5] see also Shorts v. Bartholomew, 278 S.W.3d 268, 271 (Tenn. 2009).

         Mr. Ray entered the Jail to serve the confinement portion of his sentence on July 18, 2013, almost two weeks before the trial court issued its official judgment on July 31, 2013. Such delay between inmates entering the Jail and the Jail receiving official judgments was not uncommon. As a result, each inmate ordinarily entered the Jail with a "disposition sheet"-a document described in the record as a written form meant to ensure that the Jail received accurate information concerning the inmate's sentence and what had occurred in the trial court. Although the disposition sheet had a signature line for the judge, it was not an official court document. Nevertheless, Jail personnel entered sentencing information from disposition sheets into the Jail's computer system before receiving official judgments. After receiving an official judgment, Jail procedure called for Jail personnel to compare it to the information taken from the inmate's disposition sheet. Where the official judgment differed from the disposition sheet, or questions arose about the inmate's sentence, Jail procedure called for Jail personnel to seek clarification from the attorneys or the judge involved in the case.

         The disposition sheet with which Mr. Ray entered the Jail on July 18, 2013, contained no language prohibiting him from immediately serving as a trusty and earning work credits. Five days after his arrival at the Jail, Mr. Ray signed an Inmate Worker Policy Contract, which designated him a trusty inmate worker and assigned him to work in the kitchen. Mr. Ray's responsibilities included cooking, cleaning, and passing out meal trays throughout the day. To fulfill these duties, Mr. Ray awoke daily between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. to serve breakfast at 4:30 a.m. As a trusty, Mr. Ray also received certain privileges, including issuance of a white jumpsuit instead of the blue one worn by the Jail's general population, assignment to a trusty-only residence pod, permission to wear tennis shoes, extra food, special dining times, and unlimited tea.

          Eight days after Mr. Ray began working as a trusty, the trial court issued its judgment in Mr. Ray's case on July 31, 2013. The trial court used a judgment form that contained the following line: "Minimum service prior to eligibility for work release, furlough, trusty status and rehabilitation programs: __% (Misdemeanor Only)." See Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 17. The trial judge placed "75" in the blank space preceding the percent symbol.

         This 75% notation first came under scrutiny in November 2013, after Mr. Ray was mistakenly released from custody on October 24, 2013, "as a result of a miscalculation of his sentence by a corrections officer." After learning that Mr. Ray had been released from confinement, the trial judge, on November 14, 2013, called Sergeant Chester Long, Jr., a correctional officer at the Jail, to inquire about Mr. Ray's early release. During this conversation, the trial judge advised Sergeant Long that, pursuant to the trial court's judgment, Mr. Ray was not eligible to earn work credits until he had served 75% of his eleven month, twenty-nine day sentence in actual confinement. The trial judge directed Sergeant Long to have Mr. Ray picked up and returned to the Jail to serve the balance of his sentence.

         When the trial judge called him, Sergeant Long was not aware Mr. Ray had been released but promised to investigate the matter. Sergeant Long thereafter talked with his supervisor, Captain Tom Rudder, the Jail administrator, about the trial judge's instructions. Captain Rudder and Sergeant Long subsequently met with the trial judge to discuss the matter further. In a declaration filed in the District Court, the trial judge stated that, during this meeting, he "explained to Captain Rudder and Sergeant Long that pursuant to [the 75%] provision [in the judgment], [Mr. Ray] was not entitled to work credits until he [had] served 75% of his sentence. Both Sergeant Long and Captain Rudder stated that they understood [the trial judge's] orders and pursuant to [his] orders would not apply work credits to [Mr. Ray's] sentence."

         After this meeting, Sergeant Long called Mr. Ray and instructed him to return to the Jail, explaining that he had been mistakenly released from custody too soon. Mr. Ray returned to the Jail as instructed on November 17, 2013, and he immediately resumed working as a trusty. One week later, on November 24, 2013, Mr. Ray filed a motion through counsel asking the trial court to suspend the balance of his sentence or, in the alternative, to place him on work release. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306(c) ("At any time during the period of continuous confinement ordered pursuant to this section, the defendant may apply to the sentencing court to have the balance of the sentence served on probation supervision. The application may be made at no less than two-month intervals.")

         Mr. Ray attended the hearing on the motion. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court denied the motion, explaining:

Now, I want to make sure it's clear too, he's not eligible for any type of work release credits. He's not eligible for any type of trust[y] credits. The only credits that he can earn are good behavior credits. That's the reason it's listed at [75%]. So, you know, once he's served a minimum of nine months in jail then if he's behaved himself in jail then the sheriff could give him good behavior credits and let him out on this 11 months and 29 day period of shock incarceration. You know, that was the intent of the Court. That's the Judgment of the Court[, ] and I still feel like that's the proper sentence.

         The trial court's July 31, 2013 judgment was not amended after this hearing, and Mr. Ray did not appeal the trial court's denial of his motion. In a deposition filed in the District Court, Mr. Ray acknowledged that the trial court told him he would not be eligible for work credits until after he had served 75% of the confinement portion of his sentence. Nevertheless, Mr. Ray continued working as a trusty at the Jail until his release on April 16, 2014.

         In calculating his April 16, 2014 release date, the Jail applied only good behavior credits authorized by Tennessee Code Annotated section 41-2-111(b) (2014).[6] The Jail did not apply work credits described in other statutes. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 41-2-146, [7] -147, [8] and -150[9] (2014). In the declaration submitted to the District Court, the trial judge stated that applying work credits to the confinement portion of Mr. Ray's sentence before he had served 75% of it would have been a violation of his order. By not applying work credits, the Jail had complied with his ruling.

         In contrast, Mr. Ray alleged in his federal civil rights action that, had Madison County afforded him the work credits he earned as a trusty, he would have been released from the Jail seven weeks earlier. Mr. Ray argued that, by holding him beyond the date he should have been released, Madison County deprived him of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Mr. Ray contended that "he had a liberty interest in the work credits that the [trial court's] order and instructions could not defeat."

         Madison County moved for summary judgment in the District Court, arguing that Tennessee statutes and decisions authorize a sentencing judge to establish the percentage of actual confinement that a split confinement inmate must serve prior to becoming eligible to accrue work credits. The District Court denied Madison County's motion for summary judgment.[10] Nevertheless, the District Court certified the following questions to this Court:

1. Does a Tennessee sentencing court or the county sheriff possess the ultimate authority to determine the eligibility of a felon sentenced to serve a split confinement sentence in a local jail or workhouse to participate in a trusty work program and, therefore, be entitled to work credits under Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 41-2-146 or 41-2-147?
2. In the event a Tennessee sentencing court issues an improper or potentially improper sentence, does a sheriff have a duty under Rule 36.1 or the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure or under any other Tennessee law to challenge the sentence, or is [it] the duty of the criminal defendant, the defense attorney and the district attorney general to challenge an illegal sentence?

         We accepted certification of these two questions but also directed the parties to file supplemental briefs addressing some additional underlying questions:

1. When a sentencing court imposes a sentence of split confinement pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306, whereby a defendant is ordered to serve a period of continuous confinement of up to one year in the local jail or workhouse followed by a period of probation, which additional statutory sentencing provisions, if any, dictate how the period of continuous confinement is to be served?
A. Does Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-302(d), Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-314(b)(1), or any other statutory provision authorize a sentencing court (imposing a sentence of split confinement pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-306) to fix a percentage of the continuous confinement portion that a defendant must serve prior to being eligible for consideration in a work release/trusty program in the local jail or workhouse?
B. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-211(3) provides that if a defendant is convicted of an offense designated as a felony but the court imposes a sentence of less than one year in the jail or local workhouse, the defendant is considered a felon but he is sentenced as in the case of a misdemeanor. Despite the reference in the Sentencing Commission Comments that this section continues the practice of allowing certain Class E felons to serve a sentence of less than one year in the local jail or workhouse, did the General Assembly intend for this statutory section to apply to a defendant who, as here, was convicted of a Class B felony and received a ten-year sentence to be served in split confinement with 11 months, 29 days confinement in the local jail or workhouse and the balance probated?
2. If the sentencing court imposes a sentence of split confinement and is authorized to fix a percentage of service that a defendant must serve prior to becoming eligible for work credits, does such authority conflict with Tenn. Code. Ann. §§ 41-2-146, 41-2-147, 41-2-150, or any other provision related to earning or crediting work credits?

Ray v. Madison Cnty., M2016-01577-SC-R23-CV (Tenn. Dec. 21, 2016) (order accepting certification and requesting supplemental briefing of underlying issues). We also invited the Tennessee Bar Association, the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Tennessee Attorney General, the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference, and the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to submit amici curiae briefs. I ...


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