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Chaparro v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 24, 2019

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

          CERTIFICATION TO THE ARIZONA SUPREME COURT

          DOMINIC W. LANZA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         BACKGROUND

         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 § 1983 action ensued. Chaparro's complaint articulates 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, 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, Chaparro contends 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.

         The State[1] filed a Motion for Certification or Dismissal that, among other things, asked this Court to certify to the Arizona Supreme Court the question whether Chaparro's sentence entitles him to parole eligibility. (Doc. 8.) After full briefing and oral argument, the Court granted the State's certification request. (Doc. 23.) The Court now issues this Certification Order pursuant to Rule 27 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Arizona.

         I. Question Of Law To Be Addressed

         The question of law to be addressed is whether, in light of A.R.S. § 41-1604.09, a person convicted of first-degree murder following a jury trial for actions that took place on or after January 1, 1994, is eligible for parole after 25 years when his sentence states that he is sentenced to “life without possibility of parole for 25 years.”

         II. Statement Of Facts Relevant To The Certified Question The following facts, which the Court assumes to be true for purposes of certification, are derived from Chaparro's complaint (Doc. 1) and request for judicial notice (Doc. 21).

         In 1993, the Arizona Legislature amended A.R.S. § 41-1604.09 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 ...


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