Sixth Circuit Affirms - MCL 769.25a(6) Violates Ex Post Facto Clause

Hill v Snyder, decided August 14, 2018
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that MCL 769.25a(6), which deprived resentenced juvenile lifers of disciplinary and good time credit earned before March 4, 2014, is an unconstitutional ex post facto law. Hill v Snyder, 308 F Supp 3d 893 (ED Mich, 2018). The Michigan Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion, adopting the reasoning of the federal district court. People v Wiley, ___ Mich App ___ (2018) (issued May 4, 2018). Now the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has affirmed the ruling of the federal district court, holding that MCL 769.25a(6) subjected plaintiffs to a harsher punishment than the law in effect at the time of their offense and original sentencing.

Plaintiffs, individuals who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole for homicide crimes they committed as juveniles, filed a motion for summary judgment in the district court against defendants, the MDOC and various other state officials, arguing that MCL 769.25a(6) retroactively deprived them of good time and disciplinary credit earned prior to the enactment of MCL 769.25a in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution. The district court agreed. Defendants appealed.

On appeal, defendants first argued, as they had in the district court, that a federal court should not rule on the case because Pullman or Younger abstention should apply. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. Pullman abstention did not apply because the case did not address an unsettled question of state law; MCL 769.25a(6) was unambiguous, and the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled on the issue in Wiley. Younger abstention did not apply because further delay was inappropriate where the case was in its seventh year.

Substantively, defendants argued that plaintiffs’ accrued credits were meaningless and without value while they had life-without-parole sentences. The court disagreed, noting that MCL 769.25a(6) would itself be pointless if plaintiffs had not accrued something of value and reasoning that the relevant inquiry in an ex post facto claim is whether retroactive elimination of credits disadvantages plaintiffs now, not how to quantify the value of credits earned during plaintiffs’ previous (life-without-parole) sentences. The court also observed that there is additional value in disciplinary credits: they encourage good behavior (which generally improves prison conditions and reduces custodial costs to tax payers) even in persons incarcerated for life because there is still hope for post-conviction relief.

Defendants argued that plaintiffs cannot be worse off than they were before application of the statute because the statute affects only those whose sentences have changed from life in prison to a term of years. The court disagreed, reasoning that the proper comparison is what plaintiffs’ punishments would look like if 769.25a(6) had not deprived them of earned credits, not a before-versus-after comparison; relief from an unconstitutional sentence cannot “sanitize” an embedded Ex Post Facto Clause violation.

Defendants argued that reinstating the credits would undermine Michigan’s goal of uniformity because the credit regime changed multiple times over the period in which plaintiffs were convicted. The court rejected this argument because it would be “perverse” to allow defendants to use changes they had effected over the years as a “shield” to the present action.

The court concluded: “It is well past time to put to rest litigation tactics and further delay. It is now time to devote the energies of the parties to rectifying the constitutional harm suffered by Plaintiffs.” The court affirmed and remanded for “expeditious relief.”

Read the full opinion here.