Lifers entitled to habeas relief for excessive incarceration must serve parole period

In re Palmer (Cal., Jan. 28, 2021, No. S256149) 2021 WL 279621, at *1


Summary: The California and federal Constitutions bar the infliction of punishment that is grossly disproportionate to the offender’s individual culpability. (U.S. Const., 8th Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) The courts, “as coequal guardian[s] of the Constitution, (are) to condemn any violation of that prohibition.” (In re Lynch (1972) 8 Cal.3d 410, 414 (Lynch).) When an inmate claims a sentence is excessive because of one or more parole denials is the question at the heart of this case.

William M. Palmer II first sought release on parole from the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) in 1995. Following the Board’s 10th denial, Palmer filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus claiming  that the 30 years he had already served on a life sentence for an aggravated kidnapping committed when he was a juvenile was constitutionally excessive. Before the Court of Appeal could adjudicate the habeas petition, the Board found him suitable for parole and ordered him released. (In re Palmer (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 1199, 1202–1203 (Palmer).) The Court of Appeal subsequently agreed with Palmer that his now-completed term of imprisonment had become unconstitutional. (Id. at pp. 1207–1222.) Because that term had already been served, however, the Court of Appeal focused its order of relief on a different target. The court reasoned that Palmer was “entitled to release from all forms of custody, including parole supervision.” (Id. at p. 1224.)

We agree with the Court of Appeal that habeas corpus relief is available to inmates whose continued incarceration has become constitutionally excessive, but who have been denied release by the Board. To the extent Palmer’s continued incarceration at some point became constitutionally excessive, though, that alone did not justify ending his parole under the current statutory scheme. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Court of Appeal grants petition and orders release from parole

Palmer filed a habeas petition in the Court of Appeal claiming that his continued incarceration for a crime committed in 1988 when he was 17 years old had become grossly disproportionate under the state and federal Constitutions. (See U.S. Const., 8th Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) Palmer complained that the Board denied him parole at each of ten hearings held between 1996 and 2015,  Before the Court of Appeal could adjudicate the  habeas corpus petition, the Board found Palmer suitable for release on parole — and then released him on parole for a five-year period.

The Court of Appeal retained the petition for adjudication and granted habeas corpus relief. The court determined first that because Palmer remained constructively in custody while on parole, the petition was not moot. (Palmer, supra, 33 Cal.App.5th at p. 1203, citing In re Sturm (1974) 11 Cal.3d 258, 265.) The court then concluded that “in light of Palmer’s age at the time of the offense and attendant diminishment of his culpability,” the Board’s repeated denials of parole rendered the 30 years he had served “so disproportionate to his individual culpability as to be ‘constitutionally excessive’ ” within the meaning of the state and federal Constitutions. (Palmer, at p. 1214; see id. at p. 1221.)  Palmer’s prison sentence “had become constitutionally excessive” before his release on parole, so the Court ruled that he was “ ‘entitled to be freed from all custody, actual or constructive.’ ” (Id. at p. 1223.) The court therefore ordered Palmer released from parole supervision. (Id. at p. 1224.)

Review by the California Supreme Court-Lifers may challenge constitutionality of their continued imprisonment 

The California Supreme Court granted review to decide whether inmates may challenge their continued incarceration as constitutionally excessive when the Board repeatedly denies parole, and what remedy is available when continued incarceration becomes constitutionally excessive.

The Court in In re Butler (2018) 4 Cal.5th 728, 744 (Butler),  reaffirmed the judiciary’s critical role in ensuring that “an inmate sentenced to an indeterminate term [ ]not be held for a period grossly disproportionate to his or her individual culpability.” Inmates vindicate that constitutional right by bringing “their claims directly to court through petitions for habeas corpus” (id. at p. 745) — precisely as Palmer has done here.

For well over four decades, the Court has  consistently recognized that life-top inmates denied release on parole may bring their constitutional challenges directly to court. And when inmates do bring such claims, they are not limited to challenging only the statutory life maximum. A life-top inmate remains free to challenge “the maximum term of imprisonment permitted by the statute,” notwithstanding the possibility of securing parole at some earlier date. (Lynch, supra, 8 Cal.3d at p. 419.) Likewise, an inmate may challenge the minimum term established by a statute, “without regard to the constitutionality vel non of the maximum.” (Id. at p. 419, fn. 9; see In re Foss (1974) 10 Cal.3d 910, 919 (Foss).)

An inmate may elect to challenge the constitutionality of the long years of imprisonment the inmate has served. Life-top inmates may test, in court, whether their continued punishment violates the Constitution.

Lifers whose punishment was excessive must still serve a parole period

 In March 2019, the Board released Palmer to a five-year parole period. Palmer contends that the parole period should never have been imposed and asks this court to affirm the Court of Appeal’s termination of it. Becayse once his prison term was determined to be constitutionally excessive, every additional day of custody — including the constructive custody of parole — is a constitutional violation.

The California Constitution prohibits punishment that is cruel or unusual. (Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) Lifers whose imprisonment has become excessive — but who has been denied parole by the Board — must be able to obtain relief in court by filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus. If a court then finds the inmate’s continued confinement has become excessive, it may order the inmate’s release from prison.

What such release does not guarantee is automatic termination of the inmate’s statutory parole period. Under a statutory scheme that treats parole as a distinct phase of punishment, and in the absence of any persuasive argument from Palmer that his parole term has separately or in combination with his years of imprisonment become constitutionally excessive, his parole remains valid. The Court of Appeal erred in ending Palmer’s parole and it’s judgment was reversed.


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