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Chaparro v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 19, 2019

Abelardo Chaparro, Plaintiff,
v.
Charles L. Ryan, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOMINIC W. LANZA, UNITED SLATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         In 1993, the Arizona Legislature passed a law eliminating the availability of parole for crimes committed on or after January 1, 1994. In May 1995-about a year-and-a-half after this parole moratorium went into effect-Plaintiff Abelardo Chaparro (“Chaparro”) shot and killed a man outside a convenience store in Phoenix. Chaparro was eventually convicted of first-degree murder following a trial in the Maricopa County Superior Court. The trial judge sentenced Chaparro to a sentence of “life without the possibility of parole for 25 years.” The State didn't appeal this sentence.

         Chaparro has now spent more than 24 years in prison. Recently, he submitted several requests to prison officials for verification he'll be certified for parole eligibility after hitting the 25-year mark. In response, he was told he won't ever be certified.

         This case ensued. Although Chaparro doesn't frame his lawsuit this way, the Court construes his complaint as articulating two alternative reasons why he should be deemed parole-eligible. First, he contends his sentence of “life without the possibility of parole for 25 years” necessarily means he must be deemed parole-eligible after 25 years. He further contends that, although this outcome might conflict with the Arizona Legislature's decision to eliminate parole in 1993, the State forfeited its ability to complain about his “illegally lenient” sentence by failing to appeal it. Under this theory (which, in the Court's view, provides the foundation for Counts Two and Three in Chaparro's complaint), Chaparro isn't challenging the validity of his sentence at all-he's simply asking for an order that would require prison officials to implement his sentence.

         Second, and alternatively, the premise underlying Count One in Chaparro's complaint is that if the prison officials' interpretation of his sentence is correct (i.e., he'll never become eligible for parole), such a sentence would be unconstitutional and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, he notes that the Arizona Legislature recently passed a law clarifying that prisoners who were convicted via guilty plea of the crime of first-degree murder may become eligible for parole and argues that denying parole eligibility to inmates who were convicted at trial of the same crime would impermissibly penalize them for exercising a constitutional right.

         Now pending before the Court is the State's “motion for certification or dismissal.”[1]In a nutshell, the State argues the key threshold issue in this case is an unresolved question of state law-whether Chaparro's sentence of “life without the possibility of parole for 25 years” means he becomes parole-eligible after 25 years or whether the sentence should be construed as never resulting in parole eligibility. Thus, the State contends the Court should either certify this question to the Arizona Supreme Court or abstain from resolving it. Alternatively, the State argues that Chaparro's federal constitutional claims should be dismissed for various reasons and that Chaparro should be required under Rule 19 to name the members of the Board of Executive Clemency as additional defendants. Chaparro disagrees with all of those arguments.

         As explained below, the Court agrees with the State that the most prudent course of action, and the course of action most consistent with the values of comity and federalism, is to seek certification from the Arizona Supreme Court concerning what, exactly, Chaparro's sentence means under Arizona law. If, as Chaparro argues, a sentence of “life without the possibility of parole for 25 years” means that an inmate becomes parole-eligible after 25 years, there will be no need to resolve Chaparro's federal constitutional challenges.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Underlying Facts

         The following facts, which the Court assumes to be true for purposes of the pending motion, are derived from Chaparro's complaint and request for judicial notice.[2]

         In 1993, A.R.S. § 41-1604.09 was amended to eliminate parole for all offenses committed on or after January 1, 1994. (Doc. 1 ¶ 9.)

         On May 31, 1995, Chaparro was charged with first-degree murder in connection with events that occurred on May 21, 1995. (Id. ¶ 10.)

         On July 25, 1996, Chaparro was convicted at trial of one count of first-degree murder. (Id. ¶ 13.)

         On September 20, 1996, at the conclusion of Chaparro's sentencing hearing, the trial judge stated: “[I]t is the judgment and sentence of the Court you be imprisoned for the rest of your natural life without the possibility of parole for 25 years, followed by a consecutive term of community supervision equal to one day for every seven days of sentence imposed.” (Doc. 21-1 at 17.)

         On September 23, 1996, the trial court issued a minute entry reflecting that Chaparro's sentence was “Natural Life without possibility of parole for 25 years.” (Doc. 21-2 at 5.)

         On December 6, 1996, the trial court issued a minute entry stating that, “[d]ue to clerical error, IT IS ORDERED nunc pro tunc to September 20, 1996, to reflect the following sentence: Life without possibility of parole for 25 years.” (Doc. 21-3 at 2.)

         The State chose not to appeal Chaparro's sentence. (Doc. 1 ¶ 16.)

         On July 31, 1997, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued a memorandum decision rejecting Chaparro's appeal and affirming his ...


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