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Harris v. State

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

January 9, 2020

RICKY HARRIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
STATE OF TENNESSEE, et al., Defendants.



         The following fourteen inmates at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (“BCCX”) in Pikeville, Tennessee, filed this pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: Ricky Harris, Randy Jones, Ronnie Armstrong, Jack Nunley, Raymond Teague, Michael Stewart, John Boatfield, Stacy Ramsey, Charles Mosley, William Ledford, Bruce Smiley, Lamont Johnson, Andrew Mann, [1] and Eddie Murphy. Each Plaintiff has either paid his share of the filing fee or been authorized to proceed in this Court without prepaying fees or costs. The Complaint is now before the Court for an initial review, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”).

         I. Initial Review

         Under the PLRA, the Court must review and dismiss the Complaint if it is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The Court must construe a pro se complaint liberally, United States v. Smotherman, 838 F.3d 736, 739 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)), and accept factual allegations as true unless they are entirely without credibility. Thomas v. Eby, 481 F.3d 434, 437 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992)).

         A. Factual Allegations

         Plaintiffs are fourteen convicted state prisoners. (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 3-16.) They seek to certify a class-referred to by Plaintiffs as the “Inmate Class” (id. ¶ 28)-consisting of “all prisoners in the State of Tennessee Department of Correction [that] are affected by Tennessee sentencing statutes and [the] Tennessee Board of Parole” (id. ¶ 23). The matter of class certification, however, is not before the Court at this time.[2]

         Plaintiffs name four defendants: the State of Tennessee (“State”), which in Plaintiff's description “encompasses the State Legislature and House of Representatives, Tennessee courts including but not limited to criminal and circuit courts, Court of Criminal Appeals and Tennessee Supreme Court” (id. ¶ 18); the Tennessee Board of Parole (“Parole Board”), which “includes all parole board members” (id. ¶ 20); the Tennessee Department of Correction (“TDOC”), which is “responsible for sentence calculations” (id. ¶ 19); and Candace Whisman, [3] the TDOC Director of Sentence Management Services (id. ¶ 21).

         The factual allegations in the Complaint are divided into three sections. The first section pertains to the State's statutory sentencing scheme. (Id. ¶¶ 37-74.) The second addresses the Parole Board's policies and practices. (Id. ¶¶ 75-93.) And the third challenges sentence calculations by Whisman and the TDOC. (Id. ¶¶ 94-119.) Interspersed within these sections are a few allegations regarding individual plaintiffs.[4] (Id. ¶¶ 43, 72, 80, 117-19.) Plaintiffs assert due process claims, equal protection claims, and claims for alleged violation of their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. (Id. ¶¶ 36, 121.)

         1. The State's Sentencing Scheme

         Plaintiffs first provide a scattershot summary of the development of state statutes dealing with parole or release eligibility (id. ¶¶ 38, 52, 54, 57-60, 65-66), sentence credits (id. ¶¶ 39-40, 42-45, 47-51, 55-56), and determinate sentences (id. ¶ 46). Plaintiffs' primary assertion seems to be that Tennessee's entire sentencing scheme is “so convoluted” that it violates their constitutional right to due process. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36.) According to Plaintiffs, sentencing statutes have “become so arbitrary that defendants have been denied the right to understand the charges against them, denied due process, [and] denied the opportunity to plea due to inaccurate information.” (Id. ¶ 73.) Plaintiffs also specifically assert that Tennessee Code Annotated § 40-35-501(i)(2)(A)-the sentencing statute that applies to defendants convicted of committing first-degree murder on or after July 1, 1995-is void and unconstitutional. (Id. ¶ 69.)

         Plaintiffs also assert that there is a “disparity in the sentencing statutes” that violates their constitutional equal protection rights (id. ¶ 36), particularly as it relates to Tennessee's sentencing statutes for murder (id. ¶ 70).

         2. The Parole Board's Policies and Practices

         Next, Plaintiffs allege that the Parole Board denies “release to a majority of parole-eligibl[e] offenders who have met all the required guidelines established by T.D.O.C. and the Board of Parole.” (Id. ¶ 75.) They also allege that Parole Board members “make hasty and uninformed parole decisions” because their case loads are too large. (Id. ¶ 76.) Plaintiffs assert that, by failing to consider all of the parole criteria, and instead relying exclusively on the “seriousness of the offense” to deny parole, the Parole Board denies prisoners' due process rights. (Id. ¶¶ 82-83.)

         Plaintiffs also seem to assert an equal protection claim against the Parole Board, alleging that the Parole Board improperly distinguishes between certain categories of inmates. Namely, they allege that the complete Parole Board attends hearings in person only in “high-profile” cases, while so-called “regular prisoners” receive some kind of remote hearing. (Id. ¶ 91.) Even then, Plaintiffs allege, prisoners who committed a “violent offense” meet with one or two Parole Board members by video conference, while “non-violent” offenders meet a hearing officer by video conference who “makes a non-binding recommendation to the Board.” (Id. ¶¶ 89-90.) And finally, Plaintiffs allege that prisoners with “protesters[5] are 95% more likely to be denied parole . . . as long as the protesters attend the hearing, ” as compared to prisoners without protesters. (Id. ¶ 92.) Plaintiffs also take issue with the Parole Board's appeal process, calling it a “travesty of justice” because it provides “no accountability.” (Id. ¶¶ 86-87.)

         3. Sentence Calculation by Whisman and the TDOC

         Finally, Plaintiffs excerpt parts of the TDOC's “Sentence Management Service Procedures Manual” that provide a history of some of Tennessee's sentencing statutes. (Id. ¶¶ 94-107.) They complain that the TDOC does not comply with certain provisions of the Manual in its sentence calculations. (Id. ¶¶ 103-05, 107.) They also allege that the Manual contains “ambiguities, [and] inaccurate[] and arbitrary procedures which fail[] to adhere to [] statutes and case law.” (Id. ¶ 114.) In reading the Manual, Plaintiffs allege, “it is obvious that Sentence Management is in a [s]tate of crisis.” (Id. ¶ 107.) Plaintiffs also assert that the procedures for challenging sentence calculations are so inadequate that they violate Plaintiffs' right to due process. (Id. ¶ 108-09.)

         As part of this section, Plaintiffs assert that they have been denied access to the courts for two reasons: they cannot adequately access old sentencing statutes (id. ΒΆΒΆ 110-11), and the BCCX law library has a limited ...

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