On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 2-05-cv-06826) District Judge: Hon. Norma L. Shapiro
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jordan, Circuit Judge.
*(Pursuant to Rule 43(c), Fed. R. App. P.)
Before: JORDAN, HARDIMAN and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges
The Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and other officials of the Commonwealth (collectively "the Commonwealth")*fn1 appeal the May 29, 2009
Order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granting William Evans‟s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ordering Evans‟s release. The District Court held that Evans‟s due process rights had been violated by a change in the calculation of his release date. For the following reasons, we conclude that the District Court erred in holding that Evans had a constitutionally protected liberty interest in a miscalculated release date and further erred in holding that his due process rights were violated. We will therefore reverse the District Court‟s order and remand with the instruction that Evans‟s habeas petition be denied.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Evans was arrested in Memphis, Tennessee, on warrants issued by Lehigh County, Pennsylvania charging him with rape of minors, and was ultimately convicted of multiple counts of rape, incest, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and terroristic threats. At the end of the tortuous route this case has taken, he was left in prison for several more years than he had long been led to believe he would serve. The present appeal throws into relief the problems that even well-intentioned state actors and a conscientious district court can encounter when a mistake lies hidden for many years.
Following his extradition from Tennessee, Evans was committed to Lehigh County Prison on November 6, 1986. Soon thereafter, he was formally charged by Lehigh County with the crimes for which he had been arrested.*fn2 On November 13, 1986, Evans was transferred to Northampton County, Pennsylvania, and charged with separate counts of rape. He was tried and convicted on both the charges in Northampton County and those in Lehigh County and sentenced on December 6, 1990 and March 21, 1991 respectively. The Pennsylvania Superior Court subsequently determined that those convictions were so affected with error that they had to be vacated and new trials granted. Commonwealth v. Evans, 603 A.2d 608 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992).
On remand, Evans, who had been incarcerated since his extradition in 1986, stipulated to non-trial dispositions in both the case in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas (the "Northampton Court") and the case in the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas (the "Lehigh Court"). On January, 14, 1994, he was sentenced in the Northampton Court to 10 to 20 years of imprisonment and awarded credit for time served. He was then, on June 29, 1994, sentenced in the Lehigh Court to 10 to 20 years of imprisonment to be served concurrently with the sentence imposed by the Northampton Court. The sentence imposed by the Lehigh Court is the only one directly at issue on this appeal. In sentencing Evans, the Lehigh Court stated that he would be given "credit ... as required by law for all time spent in custody as a result of these criminal charges for which sentence is being imposed." (App. at 133.)
A few days later, on July 8, 1994, someone at the Lehigh Court prepared an administrative form called a "Court Commitment Form DC-300B" (the "Commitment Sheet"), recording the effective date of the Lehigh County sentence as November 6, 1986, which corresponds to the date Evans was placed in the Lehigh County prison after his extradition. The Commitment Sheet was not signed by the sentencing judge. By designating the date of Evans‟s sentence as November 6, 1986, the Lehigh Court was effectively granting credit on the Lehigh County sentence for Evans‟s time served from November 6, 1986, forward. That designation, however, ran afoul of Pennsylvania law because it included credit for time served that had already been applied to the sentence Evans was serving on his conviction in Northampton County.*fn3
Later that year, the Department of Corrections ("DOC") realized that the Commitment Sheet reflected that Evans was being given credit for time served on his Lehigh County sentence from November 13, 1986, to March 20, 1991, even though that time had already been credited to his Northampton County sentence. The DOC recognized that Evans was not entitled to such double-crediting and, on December 28, 1994, wrote the Lehigh Court, advising the sentencing judge of the problem and saying:
[T]o date, [the Department has] not extended any duplicative portion of this credit to this inmate. If your honor agrees that the credit is not appropriate, then amended commitment papers from the Clerk of the Court removing the reference to this credit would be sincerely appreciated. However, if Your Honor disagrees with the analysis set forth in this letter and wishes the Department to apply the full amount of credit originally indicated for this sentence, the Department will apply that credit upon receiving your reply to this letter confirming your intention.
(App. at 157.) The DOC‟s letter indicated that a copy was sent to Evans‟s counsel, but Evans claims he never saw it.*fn4
Nearly eleven years after the imposition of Evans‟s Lehigh County sentence, the DOC issued a Sentence Status Summary on April 13, 2005, deducting the credit for time he served between November 13, 1986, to March 20, 1991, which had improperly been reflected on Evans‟s Commitment Sheet.*fn5 After that change, Evans‟s release date was moved from November 2006 to March 2011.*fn6 Upon learning of his amended release date, Evans promptly filed in the Lehigh Court a pro se petition claiming that the DOC had acted improperly.
The Lehigh Court denied Evans‟s request that he retain the credit for time served as reflected on the Commitment Sheet. An amended Commitment Sheet was issued by the Lehigh County Clerk on May 25, 2005, changing the effective date of Evans‟s sentence from November 6, 1986, to June 29, 1994, and Evans was advised of that change on June 1, 2005.
Shortly thereafter, on June 24, 2005, Evans filed a pro se motion to withdraw his plea of nolo contendere, which the Lehigh Court treated as a petition for relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"). See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9541-9546. On August 23, 2005, the Lehigh Court dismissed that PCRA petition as untimely, because Evans had failed to file the petition within one year of the availability of PCRA relief.*fn7 On November 17, 2005, Evans responded by filing a motion to appeal nunc pro tunc, in an attempt to challenge the effect of the August 23, 2005 order. The
Lehigh Court denied his motion without a hearing. Evans then appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which also denied him relief. In its opinion, the Superior Court noted the "gross untimeliness" of his November 17, 2005 motion to appeal nunc pro tunc and determined that, because of that, the motion should be treated as a second PCRA petition. (App. at 181.) Treating it as such, the Superior Court found it untimely because it was filed more than one year after the effective date of the PCRA, and Evans had failed to successfully invoke any of the statutory exceptions to that timing requirement.*fn8 (Id.)
Evans next filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.*fn9 He argued, among other things, that the Lehigh Court lacked jurisdiction to amend his release date and that the amendment violated his due process rights. The assigned Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") recommending that Evans‟s habeas petition be denied because, although the "Court cannot condone the fact that [Evans] was repeatedly misled, over a period of eleven years, to believe his sentence expiration date was in November 2006 ... the error [did] not rise to constitutional proportions." (App. at 45.) While the District Court adopted the R & R in part, it ordered Evans‟s release because it concluded that the DOC and the Lehigh Court "arbitrarily and ...