Compton v. Lytle, 27,967.

Docket NºNo. 27,967.
Citation2003 NMSC 31, 134 N.M. 586, 81 P.3d 39
Case DateNovember 05, 2003
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

Tova Indritz, Albuquerque, for Petitioner.

Patricia A. Madrid, Attorney General, Ralph E. Trujillo, Assistant Attorney General, Albuquerque, for Respondent.


CHAVEZ, Justice.

{1} In 1983 Petitioner was sentenced to death, but on November 26, 1986, Governor Anaya commuted Petitioner's death sentence to life imprisonment. In this proceeding, Petitioner contends he is eligible for a parole hearing, having accumulated 6,393 days of various good-time credits as of December 31, 2002. Because the Legislature has specifically provided that inmates serving life sentences only become eligible for a parole hearing after thirty years, we hold that Petitioner is not eligible for a parole hearing until he has actually served thirty years in prison, his good-time credits notwithstanding.


{2} Petitioner's request for a parole hearing sooner than the statutory thirty-year period stems from the Department of Corrections' ("Department's") former practice of awarding all inmates good-time credits, including those inmates serving a life sentence, and accelerating their parole eligibility date accordingly. From the point when Petitioner began serving his sentence in 1983 until April 15, 1988, the Department awarded him good-time credits of varying types.1 However, on April 15, 1988, the Department changed its policy and no longer accelerated the parole eligibility date of inmates serving a life sentence. Petitioner's parole eligibility date was thus returned to the original date of February 21, 2013, and although Petitioner continues to be "awarded" good-time credits, his parole eligibility date has not moved.

{3} The Department's change in policy came about as a belated reaction to an opinion of the Attorney General issued on April 23, 1986, which concluded that prisoners serving life sentences were not eligible for good-time credits. See NM Att'y Gen. Op. 86-01 (1986). Initially, the Department disagreed with the Attorney General and continued to award good time to prisoners serving life sentences and move forward their parole eligibility dates accordingly. By letter of February 9, 1988, however, the Secretary of the Department advised the adult corrections director to institute policies that complied with the Attorney General's opinion, and inmates were so advised by a memorandum dated August 5, 1988.

{4} On April 3, 2002, Petitioner filed a petition for habeas corpus seeking reinstatement of his forfeited good-time credits and a determination that he could continue to accrue those credits and reduce his parole eligibility date. As he does to this Court, Petitioner argued to the district court that: (1) the relevant statutory provisions allow those serving a life sentence to accrue good-time credits toward accelerating their parole hearing date, and (2) the Department violated his due process rights by unilaterally revoking his accumulated credits and resetting his parole hearing date to the original date of February 21, 2013. The district court denied the petition without a hearing, noting that "[a]lthough the NM Supreme Court has not directly addressed this issue, it has apparently accepted that there cannot be parole before thirty years on a life sentence[,]" and citing to Martinez v. State, 108 N.M. 382, 383, 772 P.2d 1305, 1306 (1989). We granted the petition for a writ of certiorari, see Rule 12-501 NMRA 2003, and now expressly hold that under the relevant statutory provisions, an inmate serving a life sentence is not eligible for a parole hearing until he or she has actually served thirty years of that sentence in prison. With respect to Petitioner's due process claim, we hold that he did not have a liberty interest in erroneously granted good-time credits; therefore, his due process rights were not violated. We affirm the district court.


{5} An apparent conflict in two statutory provisions created the controversy in this case. On the one hand, under the Probation and Parole Act, an inmate serving a life sentence only "becomes eligible for a parole hearing after he has served thirty years of his sentence." NMSA 1978, § 31-21-10(A) (1980, prior to amendments through 1997). On the other hand, the relevant good-time statutory provisions speak in broad terms, arguably applying to any inmate and not specifically excluding those serving a life sentence from their coverage. For example, NMSA 1978, § 33-2-34(A) (1981, prior to amendments through 1988, repealed 1999)2 provided that "[a]ny inmate confined in the penitentiary of New Mexico or other institution... may be awarded a deduction of not more than ten days' meritorious good time per month..." (emphasis added). Petitioner argues this provision does not specifically exclude those serving life sentences, and an inmate serving a life sentence is therefore eligible to receive good-time credits to reduce the thirty-year period provided by Section 31-21-10(A).

{6} In at least three cases, this Court has previously expressed its understanding that a life sentence required the inmate to actually serve thirty years in prison prior to being eligible for a parole hearing. In Martinez, we rejected a pro se litigant's argument that Section 31-21-10(A) denies him equal protection of the law because it "prevents him from achieving meritorious deductions from his life term before thirty years have elapsed, even though [Section 33-2-34] would otherwise permit such deductions." Martinez, 108 N.M. at 383, 772 P.2d at 1306. Instead, this Court held that the Legislature "did not overstep its prerogatives in concluding that capital felons may be detained in prison for at least thirty years before being given a parole hearing, irrespective of any meritorious deductions that are allowed to noncapital felons." Id.

{7} In State v. Henderson, 109 N.M. 655, 789 P.2d 603 (1990), overruled on other grounds by Clark v. Tansy, 118 N.M. 486, 882 P.2d 527 (1994),

this Court found error in the trial court's rejection of the following jury instruction:

An inmate of [the state penitentiary] who was sentenced to life imprisonment as the result of the commission of a capital felony becomes eligible for a parole hearing after he has served thirty years of his sentence.

Id. at 658, 789 P.2d at 606. We noted, "The requested instruction would have given the jury accurate information on what a life sentence actually means and would have served to correct misimpressions in some jurors' minds that a life sentence means `five or six' years or some other erroneously conceived period of time." Id. at 659, 789 P.2d at 607. Similarly, in Clark, 118 N.M. at 493-94, 882 P.2d at 534-35, this Court remanded the case to ensure that the jury be informed of the earliest point in time that the defendant could be considered for parole should the jury choose life over death. In so doing, we cited Martinez and described it as holding that capital felons must be imprisoned for at least thirty years before being given a parole hearing, regardless of any meritorious deductions allowed to non-capital felons. Clark, 118 N.M. at 494, 882 P.2d at 535. The Legislature in 2001 supported this Court's holdings and added NMSA 1978, § 31-18-14.1 (2001), which states, "At the beginning of a sentencing hearing for a capital felony case ..., the court shall explain to the jury that a sentence of life imprisonment means that the defendant shall serve thirty years of his sentence before he becomes eligible for a parole hearing, as provided in Section 31-21-10...."

{8} Petitioner argues that our broad understanding as expressed in these cases does not specifically answer the question he raises, which is whether the thirty-year period may be reduced by any good-time credits earned by the inmate. In support of his contention that good-time credits should be calculated to reduce the thirty-year period, Petitioner argues primarily that Section 31-21-10(A) establishes a minimum sentence analogous to the minimum sentence an inmate would receive under the former indeterminate sentencing scheme, and that the minimum sentence was traditionally reduced by good-time credits, despite statutory language similar to Section 31-21-10(A). Petitioner also argues that other conventions of statutory interpretation support his reading of Sections 31-21-10(A) and 33-2-34.


Indeterminate sentence analogy

{9} Prior to 1979, defendants received indeterminate sentences, with the judge setting the minimum and maximum term of imprisonment. The ranges were set by statute, but the judge had discretion to adjust the numbers within that range or suspend part of the sentence. Thus, as noted in a case decided under that sentencing scheme,

[W]here the penalty provided was, say, one to three years, the courts could sentence for a period of from one to two years, or two to three years, or not less than three nor more than three, or any combination between one and three years.

Owens v. Swope, 60 N.M. 71, 77, 287 P.2d 605, 608-09 (1955) (per curiam). Before Owens, the New Mexico State Penitentiary allowed good-time credits to reduce the minimum sentence and granted the inmate a discharge when that reduced minimum sentence had been served. Owens, however, held that good-time credits should serve two functions: (1) reducing the maximum sentence, at which time the inmate was entitled to a discharge, and (2) reducing the minimum sentence, the time at which the inmate becomes eligible for parole. Id. at 80, 287 P.2d at 611. The Court allowed the good-time credits to reduce the parole-eligibility date despite the following language in the parole statute: "[The Board] shall have power to establish rules and regulations under which prisoners within the penitentiary may be allowed to go upon parole outside the penitentiary building and enclosure ... after having served the minimum term of his sentence...

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