The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge LEAVITT*fn1
Submitted: January 9, 2009
BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.
Rufus Lawson (Lawson) petitions for review of an order of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (Board) that denied Lawson's administrative appeal from the Board's decision recommitting him as a convicted parole violator. Lawson argues that the parole violation charge against him should have been dismissed because the Board's parole revocation hearing, conducted 61 days after it received official verification of Lawson's conviction, was not timely. Lawson contends that the hearing was not timely because the Board failed to exercise due diligence to obtain official verification of his conviction in a prompt manner. Because there is no due diligence requirement in the applicable regulation, we will affirm the Board's order.
On October 4, 2006, while on parole, Lawson was arrested and charged with several violations of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act of 1995, 18 Pa. C.S. §§6101 -- 6187. The Board issued a detainer against Lawson and on November 8, 2006, after Lawson waived his rights to a detention hearing and a hearing before a Board panel, the Board ordered Lawson detained pending the disposition of the new criminal charges. Lawson pled guilty to the new offenses on February 15, 2007, and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 30 to 60 months on April 18, 2007.
The Board conducted a parole revocation hearing on January 28, 2008, at which Lawson objected to the timeliness of the hearing. In support, Lawson testified that he pled guilty to the new charges on February 15, 2007, and that the Department of Corrections filed a new sentence status sheet with the Board on May 3, 2007. Notes of Testimony, January 28, 2008, at 5, 8 (N.T. __); Certified Record at 36, 39 (C.R. __). Parole Agent Adrian Rubio testified on behalf of the Board that he received official verification of Lawson's new convictions on November 29, 2007. Agent Rubio also testified that he had requested verification of the convictions in June 2007; he attributed the delay between June and November to "[s]ome problem with the courts." N.T. 6; C.R. 37.
Based upon Agent Rubio's testimony, the hearing examiner denied Lawson's objection, holding that the revocation hearing was timely because the hearing occurred within 120 days of November 29, 2007, the date on which the Board received official verification of Lawson's convictions. On April 2, 2008, the Board issued a decision recommitting Lawson as a convicted parole violator to serve 18 months backtime, when available. Lawson filed a petition for administrative review, again asserting that the January 28, 2008, revocation hearing was untimely. On August 20, 2008, a three-member panel of the Board rejected Lawson's challenge, denied Lawson's petition and affirmed the revocation panel's decision. Lawson now petitions this court for review.*fn2
Before this Court, Lawson argues that the Board erred in determining that his January 28, 2008, revocation hearing was timely. Lawson contends that when a "significant period of time" elapses between a new conviction and the parole agent's receipt of official verification of that conviction, the Board must establish that its agent exercised due diligence in obtaining the verification. It is this "common law" burden that Lawson asserts the Board failed to satisfy in this case.*fn3
When a parolee alleges that the Board failed to hold a timely revocation hearing, the Board bears the burden of proving that the hearing was timely. Taylor v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 931 A.2d 114, 116 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007), appeal denied, 596 Pa. 750, 946 A.2d 690 (2008). Determining whether a revocation hearing was timely is a straightforward inquiry that is governed by Board regulation. The pertinent regulation states that [a] revocation hearing shall be held within 120 days from the date the Board received official verification of the plea of guilty or nolo contendere or of the guilty verdict at the highest trial court level .. 37 Pa. Code §71.4(1). For purposes of the regulation, "official verification" is [a]ctual receipt by a parolee's supervising parole agent of a direct written communication from a court in which a parolee was convicted of a new criminal charge attesting that the parolee was so convicted.
Applying the regulation to the facts in this case, there is no doubt that Lawson's parole revocation hearing was timely. According to Agent Rubio's credited testimony, he received official verification of Lawson's new convictions on November 29, 2007. The Board conducted Lawson's revocation hearing 61 days later, on January 28, 2008, well within the 120-day time period mandated by 37 Pa. Code §71.4(1).
Lawson acknowledges the Board's well-settled burden under 37 Pa. Code §71.4(1). He maintains, however, that when "a significant period of time" has elapsed between a parolee's new conviction and the parole agent's receipt of official verification, the Board must also establish that it exercised due diligence in obtaining official verification of the conviction. Lawson argues that the nine months that elapsed between his new convictions and Agent Rubio's receipt of official verification of those convictions was just such a "significant period of time," and that Agent Rubio failed to establish that he exercised "due diligence." Lawson relies primarily upon two decisions of this Court as authority for the "due diligence" requirement: Ramos v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 954 A.2d 107 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008) and Fitzhugh v. Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, 623 A.2d 376 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993). We reject Lawson's interpretation and application of our precedent.
In Fitzhugh, the parolee pleaded guilty to new criminal charges in July 1991, but his revocation hearing was not held until February 1992. The parolee argued that the Board had employees in the court system whose sole function was to retrieve conviction records, which were normally available within a few days after sentencing. The parolee also argued that the Board had instructed agents not to obtain the court records until it was convenient for the Board to schedule a hearing. This Court expressed concern that if the Board was aware of the conviction but decided not to retrieve available conviction records, there was a possibility of "an unreasonable and unjustifiable delay." Fitzhugh, 623 A.2d at 379. In order to dispel that concern, the majority in Fitzhugh remanded the matter to the Board to establish facts relating to the delay between the conviction and the Board's receipt of the conviction records. Fitzhugh did not establish the broad principle that the Board has an obligation to retrieve conviction records.*fn4
Turning to Ramos, it is true, as Lawson points out, that this Court cited Fitzhugh for the proposition that "if there is a delay between the time the Board has notice of the conviction and the time when the Board receives official verification of the conviction, the Board has the burden of proving that the delay was not unreasonable and unjustifiable." Ramos, 954 A.2d at 109 (citing Fitzhugh, 623 A.2d 376) (emphasis added). This quoted language does not relate to the central issue in Ramos, which was one of evidence, i.e., whether the Board could take official notice of statements in the parole agent's report that she attempted to obtain verification on three occasions and otherwise acted appropriately. This Court held that the Board could ...