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April 8, 2015
  Prieto v. Clarke -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Capital Prisoner Lacks Procedural Due Process Rights Because Virginia Statute Expressly Disclaims Liberty Expectation

Area of Law: Procedural Due Process

Issues Presented: Whether a capital prisoner was provided with adequate process under Virginia law, when he was indefinitely assigned to death row with its highly restrictive, unreviewable conditions of confinement. Whether the application of Virginia prison regulations and polices imposed an atypical and significant hardship on capital prisoners in relation to ordinary prison life.

Extended Summary: Alfredo Prieto was confined to Virginia's death row following his conviction for two capital murders. For six years, Prieto has been deprived of almost all human contact - he receives minimal visitation and remains in a small single cell for all but five hours a week. An operating procedure of the Virginia Department of Corrections states, "Any offender sentenced to Death will be assigned directly to Death Row . . . . No reclassification will be completed." This policy essentially mandates indefinite placement on the Row, with no process for review of the offender's classification or living conditions.

Prieto brought this action pro se, alleging that his indefinite confinement on death row violated his procedural due process rights and that the conditions themselves violate his Eighth Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed Prieto's Eighth Amendment claim, but found the procedural due process claim plausible and appointed Prieto counsel. The District Court granted Prieto's motion for summary judgment and issued an injunction, noting that the conditions on Virginia's death row were uniquely severe and that Prieto had established a due process liberty interest in avoiding them. The court also found Prieto was not provided adequate process based on his automatic and permanent assignment.

Virginia prison officials appealed the issuance of the injunction. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that Prieto had not established a protected liberty interest.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Prieto's contention that harsh and atypical confinement conditions alone give rise to a liberty interest. Instead, the Fourth Circuit undertook the two-part analysis established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wilkinson v. Austin. In determining if a prisoner has established a liberty interest in certain conditions of confinement, the Fourth Circuit said first, the "threshold question" is whether such an interest "arise[s] from the constitution, state policies, or regulations." The court found that Prieto had no state-created liberty interest because Virginia policy expressly and unambiguously disclaimed a due process expectation or right on the part of Virginia capital offenders.

The Fourth Circuit then chose to address the second prong of the test from Wilkinson despite the fact that any procedural due process violation was foreclosed by Prieto's lack of a liberty interest. The second prong of the Wilkinson rule says that an inmate must establish that the nature of his prison conditions impose an atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life. The Fourth Circuit found that Prieto could only be deprived of that to which he was entitled. Here, he was entitled to the conditions of confinement based on his conviction and sentence. Therefore, the court stated that the ordinary incidents of prison life for Prieto were the incidents provided for capital offenders in Virginia.

In dissent, Judge Wynn would have affirmed the District Court's judgment because he believed the language from Wilkinson meant the written regulations and policies governing the conditions of confinement are not the linchpins for finding a liberty interest. He found that Wilkinson stands for the premise that prisoners have a liberty interest in avoiding indefinite, highly restrictive imprisonment such as the conditions imposed on Prieto. Therefore, Judge Wynn found that Prieto's automatic, permanent, and unreviewable placement with highly restrictive conditions on Virginia's death row violated his procedural due process rights.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here. ">

Panel: Judges Motz, Shedd, and Wynn.

Argument Date: 10/28/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/10/2015

Docket Number: No. 13-8021

Decided: Reversed by published opinion. Judge Motz wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Shedd joined. Judge Wynn wrote a dissenting opinion.

Case Alert Author: Bethany Henneman, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Stuart Alan Raphael, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellants. Michael E. Bern, LATHAM & WATKINS LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, Cynthia E. Hudson, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Linda L. Bryant, Deputy Attorney General, Public Safety & Enforcement, Richard C. Vorhis, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Kate E. Dwyre, Assistant Attorney General, Trevor S. Cox, Deputy Solicitor General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellants. Abid R. Qureshi, Katherine M. Gigliotti, Daniel I. Levy, LATHAM & WATKINS LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. Rebecca K. Glenberg, Hope R. Amezquita, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia; Amy Fettig, Helen Vera, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION NATIONAL PRISON PROJECT, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae.

Author of Opinion: Judge Motz

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/08/2015 08:00 PM     4th Circuit  

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