Friday, June 9th, 2006

Corrections Department May Not Unilaterally Add Term of Supervision to Sentence, even if Such Term Is Mandated under Law

Earley v. Murray, Docket No. 04-4098-pr (2d Cir. June 9, 2006) (Walker, Leval, Sotomayor): This seems an easy case, though the learned district judge somehow got it wrong. The Circuit (by the Chief, no less) reverses the district court and grants the writ to the habeas petitioner, concluding that state courts acted contrary to clearly established Supreme Court law (i.e., Hill v. U.S. ex rel. Wampler, 298 U.S. 460 (1936)) when they upheld the Department of Correctional Services’s (“DOCS”) unilateral post-sentencing decision adding a 5-year term of post-release supervision to Earley’s sentence, even though the sentencing judge did not impose such a term either at sentencing or in the written judgment of conviction. Wampler held that “the only sentence known to the law is the sentence or judgment entered upon the records of the court” and that “until corrected . . . it says what it was meant to say, and this by an irrebuttable presumption.” 298 U.S. at 464. Wampler established the principle that “the judgment of the court establishes a defendant’s sentence, and that sentence may not be increased by an administrator’s amendment.” Op. 8; see id. (“The only cognizable sentence is the one imposed by the judge. Any alteration to that sentence, unless made by a judge in a subsequent proceeding, is of no effect.”). The DOCS’s unilateral amendment of Earley’s sentence contradicts this principle.

It is irrelevant that the 5-year term of supervision was required under state law at the time of Earley’s sentencing. See N.Y. Penal Law § 70.45. The appropriate remedy for the error, the Court explained, was for the state “to move to have the offending sentence vacated and the defendant resentenced by a judge” under N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 440.40. Thus, when DOCS discovered the error in Earley’s judgment, “the proper course would have been to inform the state of the problem, not to modify the sentence unilaterally.” Op. 11. And because “[t]he imposition of a sentence is a judicial act, . . . [t]he additional provision for post-release supervision added by DOCS is a nullity.”

The outcome is especially sweet for Mr. Earley, who is currently incarcerated for violating the conditions of, you guessed it, the very same term of post-release supervision. The Circuit directs the district court (after first determining whether Earley’s petition is timely under AEDPA, an issue the lower court left unresolved) to “issue a writ of habeas corpus excising the term of post-release supervision [] and relieving him of any subsequent penalty or other consequence of its imposition.” Op. 12. And while the Circuit’s “ruling is not intended to preclude the state from moving in the New York courts to modify Earley’s sentence to include the mandatory term” of supervision, the plain language of § 440.40 requires such motions to be filed within one year of the entry of judgment, a deadline long ago passed in this case.

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