California Dept. Corrections v. Morales, 931462

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtTHOMAS
Citation115 S.Ct. 1597,514 U.S. 499,131 L.Ed.2d 588
Decision Date25 April 1995
Docket Number931462
PartiesCALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Petitioners, v. Jose Ramon MORALES

514 U.S. 499
115 S.Ct. 1597
131 L.Ed.2d 588
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Petitioners,

v.

Jose Ramon MORALES.

No. 93-1462.
Supreme Court of the United States
April 25, 1995.
Syllabus *

Respondent was sentenced to 15 years to life for the 1980 murder of his wife and became eligible for parole in 1990. As required by California law, the Board of Prison Terms (Board) held a hearing in 1989, at which time it found respondent unsuitable for parole for numerous reasons, including the fact that he had committed his crime while on parole for an earlier murder. Respondent would have been entitled to subsequent suitability hearings annually under the law in place when he murdered his wife. The law was amended in 1981, however, to allow the Board to defer subsequent hearings for up to three years for a prisoner convicted of more than one offense involving the taking of a life, if the Board finds that it is not reasonable to expect that parole would be granted at a hearing during the intervening years and states the bases for the finding. Pursuant to this amendment, the Board scheduled respondent's next hearing for 1992. He then filed a federal habeas corpus petition, asserting that as applied to him, the 1981 amendment constituted an ex post facto law barred by the United States Constitution. The District Court denied the petition, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the retrospective law made a parole hearing less accessible to respondent and thus effectively increased his sentence in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.

Held: The amendment's application to prisoners who committed their crimes before it was enacted does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause. Pp. __.

(a) The amendment did not increase the "punishment" attached to respondent's crime. It left untouched his indeterminate sentence and the substantive formula for securing any reductions to the sentencing range. By introducing the possibility that the Board would not have to hold another parole hearing in the year or two after the initial hearing, the amendment simply alters the method to be followed in fixing a parole release date under identical substantive standards. Lindsey v. Washington, 301 U.S. 397, 57 S.Ct. 797, 81 L.Ed. 1182, Miller v. Florida, 482 U.S. 423, 107 S.Ct. 2446, 96 L.Ed.2d 351, and Weaver v. Graham, 450 U.S. 24, 101 S.Ct. 960, 67 L.Ed.2d 17, distinguished. Pp. __.

(b) Under respondent's expansive view, the Clause would forbid any legislative change that has any conceivable risk of affecting a prisoner's punishment. In contrast, this Court has long held that the question of what legislative adjustments are of sufficient moment to transgress the constitutional prohibition must be a matter of degree, and has declined to articulate a single "formula" for making this determination. There is no need to do so here, either, since the amendment creates only the most speculative and attenuated possibility of increasing the measure of punishment for covered crimes, and such conjectural effects are insufficient under any threshold that might be established under the Clause. The amendment applies only to those who have taken more than one life, a class of prisoners for whom the likelihood of release on parole is quite remote. In addition, it affects the timing only of subsequent hearings, and does so only when the Board makes specific findings in the first hearing. Moreover, the Board has the authority to tailor the frequency of subsequent hearings. Respondent offers no support for his speculation that prisoners might experience an unanticipated change that is sufficiently monumental to alter their suitability for parole, or that such prisoners might be precluded from receiving a subsequent expedited hearing. Nor is there a reason to think that postponing an expedited hearing would extend any prisoner's actual confinement period. Since a parole release date often comes at least several years after a suitability finding, the Board could consider when a prisoner became "suitable" for parole in setting the actual release date. Pp. __.

16 F.3d 1001 (CA 9 1994), reversed.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER, J., joined.

James Ching, Sacramento, CA, for petitioners.

James R. Asperger, appointed by the Court, Los Angeles, CA, for respondent. djQ Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1981, the State of California amended its parole procedures to allow the Board of Prison Terms to decrease the frequency of parole suitability hearings under certain circumstances. This case presents the question whether the application of this amendment to prisoners who committed their crimes before it was enacted violates the Ex Post Facto Clause. We conclude that it does not.

I

California twice has convicted respondent Jose Ramon Morales of murder. In 1971, the body of respondent's girlfriend, Gina Wallace, was found in an abandoned medical building. She had been shot in the head, neck, and abdomen; her right thumb had been amputated and her face slashed repeatedly. A bloody fingerprint near the body matched respondent's. A jury found respondent guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

While serving his sentence at the State Training Facility in Soledad, California, respondent met Lois Washabaugh, a 75-year-old woman who had begun visiting inmates after gaining an interest in prison reform. Ms. Washabaugh visited respondent on numerous occasions, and respondent kept in contact with her through correspondence. Respondent's letters eventually expressed a romantic interest in Ms. Washabaugh, and the two were married some time after respondent's release to a halfway house in April 1980.

On July 4, 1980, Ms. Washabaugh left her home and told friends that she was moving to Los Angeles to live with her new husband. Three days later, police officers found a human hand on the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles. Ms. Washabaugh was reported missing at the end of July, and fingerprint identification revealed that the hand was hers. Her body was never recovered. Respondent was subsequently arrested and found in possession of Ms. Washabaugh's car, purse, credit cards, and diamond rings.

Respondent pleaded nolo contendere to the second-degree murder of Ms. Washabaugh. He was sentenced to a term of 15 years to life, but became eligible for parole beginning in 1990. As required by California law, see Cal.Penal Code Ann. § 3041 (West 1982), the Board of Prison Terms (the Board) held a hearing on July 25, 1989, to determine respondent's suitability for parole. California law required the Board to set a release date for respondent unless it found that "the public safety requires a more lengthy period of incarceration for this individual." § 3041(b). The Board found respondent unsuitable for parole for numerous reasons, including the heinous, atrocious, and cruel nature of his offense; the mutilation of Ms. Washabaugh during or after the murder; respondent's record of violence and assaultive behavior; and respondent's commission of his second murder while on parole for his first. Supplemental App. to Pet. for Cert. 45.

Under the law in place at the time respondent murdered Ms. Washabaugh, respondent would have been entitled to subsequent suitability hearings on an annual basis. 1977 Cal. Stats., ch. 165, § 46. In 1981, however, the California Legislature had authorized the Board to defer subsequent suitability hearings for up to three years if the prisoner has been convicted of "more than one offense which involves the taking of a life" and if the Board "finds that it is not reasonable to expect that parole would be granted at a hearing during the following years and states the bases for the finding." Cal.Penal Code Ann. § 3041.5(b)(2) (West 1982).1 In light of the considerations that led it to find respondent unsuitable for parole, and based on its conclusion that a longer period of observation was required before a parole release date could be projected, the Board determined that it was not reasonable to expect that respondent would be found suitable for parole in 1990 or 1991. Pursuant to the 1981 amendment, the Board scheduled the next hearing for 1992.

Respondent then filed a federal habeas corpus petition in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, asserting that he was being held in custody in violation of the Federal Constitution. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent argued that as applied to him, the 1981 amendment constituted an ex post facto law barred by Article I, § 10, of the United States Constitution. The District Court denied respondent's habeas petition, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 16 F.3d 1001 (1994).2 Because "a prisoner cannot be paroled without first having a parole hearing," the Court of Appeals concluded that "any retrospective law making parole hearings less accessible would effectively increase the [prisoner's] sentence and violate the ex post facto clause." Id., at 1004. The Court of Appeals accordingly held that the Board was constitutionally constrained to provide respondent with annual parole suitability hearings, as required by the law in effect when he committed his crime. Id., at 1006.

We granted certiorari, 512 U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 40, 129 L.Ed.2d 935 (1994), and we now reverse.

II

Article I, § 10, of the Constitution forbids the States from passing any "ex post facto Law." In Collins v. Youngblood, 497 U.S. 37, 41, 110 S.Ct. 2715, 2718, 111 L.Ed.2d 30 (1990), we reaffirmed that the Ex Post Facto Clause incorporated "a term of art with an established meaning at the time of the framing of the Constitution." In accordance with this original understanding, we have held that the Clause is aimed at laws that...

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1186 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Wiles, Nos. 94-1592
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • December 10, 1996
    ..."retroactively alter the definition of crimes or increase the punishment for criminal acts." California Dept. of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U.S. 499, ----, 115 S.Ct. 1597, 1601, 131 L.Ed.2d 588 (1995). The Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protects criminal defendan......
  • Hatch v. State of Okl., No. 94-6052
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • June 14, 1995
    ...of crimes or increase the punishment for criminal acts.' " Page 1464 California Dep't of Corrections v. Morales, --- U.S. ----, ----, 115 S.Ct. 1597, 1601, 131 L.Ed.2d 588 (1995) (quoting Collins, 497 U.S. at 43, 110 S.Ct. at 2719-20). With these principles in mind, we turn to petitioner's ......
  • Rumsfeld v. Padilla, No. 03-1027.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 28, 2004
    ...as respondent the State's officer in charge of penal institutions. Post, at 461, n. 4 (citing California Dept. of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U. S. 499 (1995); Wainwright v. Greenfield, 474 U. S. 284 (1986)). But such cases do not support Padilla's cause. First of all, the respondents did n......
  • U.S. v. Lominac, No. 96-4282
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • May 11, 1998
    ...for the crime." Lynce, 519 U.S. at ----, 117 S.Ct. at 896 (citations omitted); accord California Dep't of Corrections v. Page 312 Morales, 514 U.S. 499, 504, 115 S.Ct. 1597, 1600-01, 131 L.Ed.2d 588 (1995); Collins, 497 U.S. at 43, 110 S.Ct. at 2719-20 ("Legislatures may not retroactively a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1186 cases
  • U.S. v. Wiles, Nos. 94-1592
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • December 10, 1996
    ..."retroactively alter the definition of crimes or increase the punishment for criminal acts." California Dept. of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U.S. 499, ----, 115 S.Ct. 1597, 1601, 131 L.Ed.2d 588 (1995). The Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protects criminal defendan......
  • Hatch v. State of Okl., No. 94-6052
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
    • June 14, 1995
    ...of crimes or increase the punishment for criminal acts.' " Page 1464 California Dep't of Corrections v. Morales, --- U.S. ----, ----, 115 S.Ct. 1597, 1601, 131 L.Ed.2d 588 (1995) (quoting Collins, 497 U.S. at 43, 110 S.Ct. at 2719-20). With these principles in mind, we turn to petitioner's ......
  • Rumsfeld v. Padilla, No. 03-1027.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 28, 2004
    ...as respondent the State's officer in charge of penal institutions. Post, at 461, n. 4 (citing California Dept. of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U. S. 499 (1995); Wainwright v. Greenfield, 474 U. S. 284 (1986)). But such cases do not support Padilla's cause. First of all, the respondents did n......
  • U.S. v. Lominac, No. 96-4282
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • May 11, 1998
    ...for the crime." Lynce, 519 U.S. at ----, 117 S.Ct. at 896 (citations omitted); accord California Dep't of Corrections v. Page 312 Morales, 514 U.S. 499, 504, 115 S.Ct. 1597, 1600-01, 131 L.Ed.2d 588 (1995); Collins, 497 U.S. at 43, 110 S.Ct. at 2719-20 ("Legislatures may not retroactively a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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