A recent decision by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit slapped down a federal district court in Texas that had issued a contempt finding and injunction against the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) over how agency calculated sentencing credits for federal prisoners also facing state charges.
The recent decision, In re: U.S. Bureau of Prisons, reversed a contempt order and injunction from the San Antonio-based western district court. The appeals court noted the district court wrongly omitted particularized findings of fact or naming particular court orders which the federal prison agency had violated.
The district court had a history of squabbling over how BOP calculated sentences for federal prisoners also facing state charges. The 5th Circuit said the trouble began with the case of Ruben Hernandez, who was sentenced to 12 months in federal prison, followed by three years’ supervised release, after having been convicted on federal conspiracy charges for transporting illegal aliens.
While on the federal supervised release, Hernandez ran afoul of local law enforcers, drawing state charges of being a felon possessing a firearm, firearm theft, and cocaine possession; he was held in pretrial detention for more than a year. But the state firearm charges were dropped, and Hernandez was eventually acquitted of the drug possession charge.
Taken back into federal custody, Hernandez saw the government successfully petition the district court to end his supervised release because of his drug and firearm possession; he was given a ten-month sentence. At his revocation hearing, Hernandez sought credit for the time he had served in state custody.
Without a written opinion, the district court refused and ordered Hernandez committed to BOP for a ten-month sentence, with credit only for time served since his drug possession acquittal. But by BOP’s calculation, Hernandez was entitled to credit for the full 543 days he was detained after being arrested on the state charges. Since with those credits, he had already served longer than his 10-month sentence, BOP released him.
Learning of Hernandez’s release, the district court told BOP it had miscalculated his sentence since it differed from the district court’s sentence. In January 2018, the district court held a contempt hearing faulting BOP’s action and raised several other BOP sentencing decisions, including one involving another defendant named Hernandez.
That defendant had been convicted on federal charges and was detained awaiting trial on state charges. The district court ordered the second Hernandez’s federal sentence should be served consecutively with any state sentence he might receive.
The 5th Circuit’s decision noted BOP’s sentence calculation was based on section 3585(b)(2) of the federal criminal code, which requires defendants held in federal custody to receive sentence credit for any time they previously spent imprisoned for previous charges unless it had already been applied towards another sentence.
Hernandez might be sentenced for state charges in the future, the appellate court reasoned, but in the meanwhile, BOP was obliged to credit him for the time detained on the still-pending state charges.
With sentences not issued on state charges, BOP couldn’t calculate consecutive sentences. The district court could mandate consecutive sentences, but not force BOP to ignore federal sentencing law, and abused its discretion trying to prevent it from following its legal duty.
Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts. He is currently a law student at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he is a Criminal Law Association and Students Against Mass Incarceration board member, and a research editor for the Social Justice Law Review. Learn more about him at https://www.prisonerresource.com.