Preiser v. Rodriguez 8212 1369

Citation411 U.S. 475,93 S.Ct. 1827,36 L.Ed.2d 439
Decision Date07 May 1973
Docket NumberNo. 71,71
PartiesPeter PREISER, Commissioner of Correctional Services, et al., Petitioners, v. Eugene RODRIGUEZ et al. —1369
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Respondents were state prisoners who had elected to participate in New York's conditional-release program, by which a prisoner serving an indeterminate sentence may earn up to 10 days per month good-behavior-time credits toward reduction of his maximum sentence. For in-prison disciplinary reasons the good-time credits of each were canceled. Each respondent brought a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in conjunction with a habeas corpus action, claiming that his credits were unconstitutionally canceled and seeking their restoration. The District Court in each case viewed the habeas corpus claim merely as an adjunct to the civil rights action, thus obviating the need for exhaustion of state remedies, and on the merits ruled for the respondent, a ruling that in each case entitled him to immediate release on parole. The Court of Appeals consolidated the actions and affirmed. Held: When a state prisoner challenges the fact or duration of his physical imprisonment and by way of relief seeks a determination that he is entitled to immediate release or a speedier release, his sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas corpus. Pp. 488—499.

(a) Although the broad language of § 1983 seems literally to apply, Congress' enactment of the specific federal habeas corpus statute, with its requirement that a state prisoner exhaust state remedies, was intended to provide the exclusive means of relief in this type of situation. Pp. 488—490.

(b) The policy of exhaustion in federal habeas corpus actions, which is rooted in considerations of federal-state comity, has as much relevance in an attack on the actions of the state prison administration as it does in an attack on the actions of a state court; and that policy applies here where respondents sought no damages, but only a ruling that they were entitled to immediate release or a speedier release. Pp. 490—494.

(c) Recent decisions of the Court relied on by respondents, upholding state prisoners' civil rights actions, are inapposite to the situation here, for the prisoners in those cases challenged only the conditions of their confinement, not the fact or duration of that confinement itself. Pp. 498—499.

456 F.2d 79, reversed.

Lillian Z. Cohen, New York City, for petitioners.

Herman Schwartz, New York City, for respondents.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondents in this case were state prisoners who were deprived of good-conduct-time credits by the New York State Department of Correctional Services as a result of disciplinary proceedings. They then brought actions in a federal district court, pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Alleging that the Department had acted unconstitutionally in depriving them of the credits, they sought injunctive relief to compel restoration of the credits, which in each case would result in their immediate release from confinement in prison. The question before us is whether state prisoners seeking such redress may obtain equitable relief under the Civil Rights Act, even though the federal habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, clearly provides a specific federal remedy.

The question is of considerable practical importance. For if a remedy under the Civil Rights Act is available, a plaintiff need not first seek redress in a state forum. Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 183, 81 S.Ct. 473, 482, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961); McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668, 671, 83 S.Ct. 1433, 1435, 10 L.Ed.2d 622 (1963); Damico v. California, 389 U.S. 416, 88 S.Ct. 526, 19 L.Ed.2d 647 (1967); King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 312 n. 4, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 2131, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118 (1968); Houghton v. Shafer, 392 U.S. 639, 88 S.Ct. 2119, 20 L.Ed.2d 1319 (1968). If, on the other hand, habeas corpus is the exclusive federal remedy in these circumstances, then a plaintiff cannot seek the intervention of a federal court until he has first sought and been denied relief in the state courts, if a state remedy is available and adequate. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b).

The present consolidated case originated in three separate actions, brought individually by the three respondents. The respondent Rodriguez, having been convicted in a New York state court of perjury and attempted larceny, was sentenced to imprisonment for an indeterminate term of from one and one-half to four years. Under New York Correction Law § 803, McKinney's Consol.Laws, c. 43, and Penal Law §§ 70.30(4)(a), 70.40(1)(b), McKinney's Consol.Laws, c. 40, a prisoner serving an indeterminate sentence may elect to participate in a conditional-release program by which he may earn up to 10 days per month good-behavior-time credit toward reduction of the maximum term of his sentence. Rodriguez elected to participate in this program. Optimally, such a prisoner may be released on parole after having served approximately two-thirds of his maximum sentence (20 days out of every 30); but accrued good-behavior credits so earned may at any time be withdrawn, in whole or in part, for bad behavior or for violation of the institutional rules. N.Y. Correction Law § 803(1).

Rodriguez was charged in two separate disciplinary action reports with possession of contraband material in his cell. The deputy warden determined that as punishment, 120 days of Rodriguez' earned good-conduct-time credits should be canceled, and that Rodriguez should be placed in segregation, where he remained for more than 40 days. In the 'Remarks' section of the deputy warden's determination was a statement that Rodriguez had refused to disclose how he had managed to obtain possession of the items in question.

Rodriguez then filed in the District Court a complaint pursuant to § 1983, combined with a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He asserted that he was not really being punished for possession of the contraband material, but for refusal to disclose how he had obtained it, and that he had received no notice or hearing on the charges for which he had ostensibly been punished. Thus, he contended that he had been deprived of his good-conduct-time credits without due process of law.

After a hearing, the District Court held that Rodriguez' suit had properly been brought under the Civil Rights Act, that the habeas corpus claim was 'merely a proper adjunct to insure full relief if (Rodriguez) prevails in the dominant civil rights claim,' 307 F.Supp. 627, 628—629 (1969), and that therefore Rodriguez was not required to exhaust his state remedies, as he would have had to do if he had simply filed a petition for habeas corpus. On the merits, the District Court agreed with Rodriguez that the questioning of him by prison officials related solely to the issue of how he had obtained the contraband materials, and that he had been ostensibly punished for something different possession of the materials—on which he had had no notice or opportunity to answer. This, the court found, denied him due process of law, particularly in light of the fact that the prison regulations prescribed no penalty for failure to inform. The District Court further found that the Prison Commutation Board had failed to forward to the Commissioner of Correction written reasons for the cancellation of Rodriguez' good-conduct time, as required by former N.Y. Correction Law § 236, and that this, too, had deprived Rodriguez of due process and equal protection of the laws. Accordingly, the court declared the cancellation of 120 days' good-behavior-time credits unconstitutional and directed the Commissioner of Correction to restore those credits to Rodriguez. Since, at that time Rodriguez' conditional-release date had already passed, the District Court's order entitled him to immediate release from prison on parole.

The Court of Appeals reversed this decision by a divided vote. The appellate court not only disagreed with the District Court on the merits, but also held that Rodriguez' action was really a petition for habeas corpus and, as such, should not have been entertained by the District Court because Rodriguez had not exhausted his state remedies in accordance with § 2254(b). As the Court of Appeals put it:

'The present application, since it seeks release from custody, is in fact an application for habeas corpus. '(R)elease from penal custody is not an available remedy under the Civil Rights Act.' Peinado v. Adult Authority, of Dept. of Corrections, 405 F.2d 1185, 1186 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 395 U.S. 968, 89 S.Ct. 2116, 23 L.Ed.2d 755 (1969). In Johnson v. Walker, 317 F.2d 418, 419—420 (5th Cir. 1963) the court said: 'Use of the Civil Rights Statutes to secure release of persons imprisoned by State Courts would thus have the effect of repealing 28 U.S.C. § 2254; of course, such was not the intent of Congress." Rodriguez v. McGinnis, 451 F.2d 730, 731 (1971).

The judgment of the Court of Appeals was subsequently set aside, and the case was reheard en banc, as explained below.

The respondent Katzoff, who was serving a sentence of one to three years in prison following his conviction for possession of a dangerous weapon, also elected to participate in New York's conditional-release program. Disciplinary charges were brought against him for making derogatory comments about prison officials in his diary. As punishment, the deputy warden deprived him of 30 days' good-conduct time for these diary entries and confined him in segregation for 57 days. Katzoff ultimately lost 50 days' good-behavior-time credits—30 days directly and 20 additional days because he was unable to earn any good-conduct time while in segregation. He brought a civil rights complaint under § 1983, joined with a petition for habeas corpus, in Federal District Court, alleging that the prison officials had acted unconstitutionally.

The District Court held, in an...

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