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Eleventh Circuit rules that prison officials could rely on fact that defendant's conviction was statutorily classified as a sex offense in classifying him as a sex offender in prison

On September 26, 2017, in Waldman v. Alabama Prison Commissioner, No, 15-15535, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 complaint against officials of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). The plaintiff had alleged that the ADOC violated his Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights when it classified him as a sex offender without notice, a hearing, or a chance to present evidence or witnesses. The Eleventh Circuit observed that under Alabama law, the plaintiff’s relevant offense of conviction, first-degree kidnapping of a minor, was statutorily classified as a sex offense, rendering moot the plaintiff’s arguments that he had not actually engaged in or attempted any sexual conduct with the kidnapped minor. The Court cited a previous holding in United States v. Veal, 322 F.3d 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), as controlling on this issue. The Court distinguished a previous holding in Kirby v. Siegelman, 195 F.3d 1285 (11th Cir. 1999), in which the Court had ruled that a prisoner’s liberty interest did entitle him to due process before being labeled a sex offender in prison, noting that in Kirby the prisoner had never been convicted of a crime statutorily classified as a sex offense.

The Eleventh Circuit also rejected the prisoner’s substantive due process claim, finding that any prison conditions resulting from the sex offender classification did not infringe on any fundamental rights and did not “shock the conscience.” See Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 845–46, 118 S. Ct. 1708, 1716 (1998) (executive action is arbitrary in a constitutional sense when it “shocks the conscience.” Id. at 846, 118 S. Ct. at 1717).

Finally, the Court rejected the prisoner’s ex post facto argument that his sentence had in effect been retroactively increased by the ADOC’s actions, noting inter alia that the defendant had sued the wrong defendants under this theory. The Court noted that to establish standing, a plaintiff must show that (1) there is an “injury in fact,” (2) the injury is causally traceable to the defendant, and (3) the plaintiff’s injury can be redressed by a favorable decision. Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61, 112 S. Ct. 2130, 2136 (1992), or else the case is not a “case or controversy” under Article III and federal courts lack jurisdiction over it. In this case, the officials named in the plaintiff’s lawsuit did not set the standards for parole eligibility.

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