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Burnette v. Fahey, No. 11-1324

Decided:  July 9, 2012

In this appeal brought by eleven inmates in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections against members of the Virginia Parole Board (the “Board), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the inmates’ claims that new policies implemented by the Board violated their rights under the Due Process and Ex Post Facto Clauses of the United States Constitution.  Overall, the inmates argued that the Board’s new policies resulted in a de facto abolition of parole for parole-eligible persons convicted of violent offenses and consequently denied them of a fair and meaningful review of their parole applications.

To begin, the Fourth Circuit noted that because there is “no constitutional or inherent right” to parole, any protectable interest in parole must be found in Virginia law.  It then determined that a state has no obligation to offer parole, but it noted that once a state creates parole, the Due Process Clause requires the state to use fair procedures in effectuating the parole system.  The Court additionally noted that because state parole decisions are entitled to great federal deference, the Constitution imposes only minimal requirements on these procedures.  Finally, the Court referred to prior decisions in which it determined that Virginia’s parole authorities are required only to provide prisoners with “a statement of [their] reasons for denial of parole.”

Because the Court found the inmates’ arguments to be at odds with the facts alleged in their complaint, it affirmed dismissal of their claims.  Specifically, the Court found that because the Board supported each denial of the inmates’ parole with at least one reason for its denial, the Board’s parole procedure complied with Constitutional requirements.  Additionally, the Court dismissed the inmates’ claim that the Board “effected an ex post facto enhancement of the punishment for their crimes, in violation of the United States Constitution.”  The Court found that the inmates failed to establish a causal link between the Board’s procedural changes and any significant risk of increased punishment.  The Court found that the inmates failed to allege facts showing that the decrease in parole-grant rates was solely attributable to the Board’s new policies and noted numerous additional explanations which existed to explain the decreased rate.  Overall, the Court reiterated its policy against micromanaging state parole systems and supported the Board’s discretion to exercise varied levels of discretion in granting or denying parole.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite