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Caton v. State

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

July 7, 2016

BRUCE CATON, Petitioner,


          Richard G. Kopf Senior United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court on Petitioner Bruce Caton’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (“petition”). (Filing No. 1.) For the reasons that follow, the court will dismiss the petition with prejudice and deny a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2004, Petitioner was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison after being convicted of burglary with habitual criminal enhancement. (Filing No. 9-3 at CM/ECF p. 38.) The 10-year minimum sentence was mandatory under the habitual criminal statute, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-2221 (Reissue 1995).

         Petitioner was discharged from the custody of the Department of Correctional Services (“Department”) after serving 10 years of his sentence. Caton v. State of Nebraska, 291 Neb. 939, 941, 869 N.W.2d 911, 913 (2015). Petitioner was later taken back into custody when the Department realized that the mandatory discharge date had been erroneously calculated by giving good time credit on the 10-year mandatory minimum term of Petitioner’s sentence. Id.

         Petitioner subsequently filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Nebraska state court, arguing that in calculating his mandatory discharge date, the Department’s reliance on State v. Castillas, 285 Neb. 174, 826 N.W.2d 255 (2013) violated the prohibition on ex post facto laws. Caton, at 941, 869 N.W.2d at 913. In Castillas, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that Neb. Rev. Stat. § 83-1, 110 makes clear that good time reductions under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 83-1, 107 do not apply to mandatory minimum sentences. In other words, “a defendant must serve the mandatory minimum portion of a sentence before earning good time credit toward the maximum portion of the sentence.” Castillas, 285 Neb. at 190, 826 N.W.2d at 268. The state district court dismissed the petition, and Petitioner appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Caton, at 941, 869 N.W.2d at 913-14.

         By written opinion, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision, stating as follows:

The Ex Post Facto Clause provides simply that no State shall pass any ex post facto law. The ex post facto prohibitions found in the Ex Post Facto Clauses of U.S. Const. art. I, § 10, and Neb. Const. art. I, § 16, forbid Congress and the states from enacting any law which imposes a punishment for an act which was not punishable at the time it was committed; or imposes additional punishment to that then prescribed. Stated another way, the Ex Post Facto Clauses forbid the application of any new punitive measure to a crime already consummated.
The Ex Post Facto Clauses ensure that individuals have fair warning of applicable laws, and the clauses guard against vindictive legislative action. Even where these concerns are not directly implicated, the clauses also safeguard a fundamental fairness interest in having the government abide by the rules of law it establishes to govern the circumstances under which it can deprive a person of his or her liberty or life.
In Weaver v. Graham, [450 U.S. 24 (1981), ] the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is a violation of the prohibition against ex post facto laws to apply a new formula for calculating future good time credits to a person incarcerated for a crime committed before the new law was passed.
However, [Petitioner] challenges the alleged retroactive application of our decision in Castillas interpreting our good time statutes, not any change to the statutes themselves. Technically, the Ex Post Facto Clauses do not concern judicial decisions. As the text of the Ex Post Facto Clause makes clear, it is a limitation upon the powers of the Legislature, and does not of its own force apply to the Judicial Branch of government.
Nevertheless, limitations on ex post facto judicial decisionmaking are inherent in the notion of due process, and retroactive judicial decisionmaking may be analyzed in accordance with the more basic and general principle of fair warning under the Due Process Clause. Under the Due Process Clause, the question is whether the judicial decision being applied retroactively is both unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the conduct in issue.
We have explained that indefensible in this context means incapable of being justified or excused. Thus, where a court interprets a statute in a surprising manner that has little in the way of legal support, the interpretation could not be applied retroactively.

Caton v. State of Nebraska, 291 Neb. 939, 944-47, 869 N.W.2d 911, 915-17 (2015) (footnotes and internal quotations omitted). After discussing Nebraska’s good time statutes, the supreme court concluded that its reading of the statutes in Castillas was “neither surprising nor legally unsupportable” and that the “Department did not violate [Petitioner’s] right to due process when it calculated his mandatory discharge date in ...

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