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United States v. Clark

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 12, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
Willie Earl Clark Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: February 13, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Springfield

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, BENTON and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          STRAS, Circuit Judge.

         Willie Clark appeals the order committing him to the custody of the Attorney General for hospitalization and mental-health treatment. The statute under which the action was taken, 18 U.S.C. § 4246, authorizes commitment proceedings for prisoners whose sentences are "about to expire." Clark argues that the government did not begin the commitment process until months after his sentence had already expired, so a necessary condition for his commitment was missing. We agree and reverse the commitment order.

         I.

         Clark was in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for a long time, first for possessing a firearm as a felon and later for the first-degree murder of a fellow inmate. While in prison, he was committed to the custody of the Attorney General for hospitalization and treatment. United States v. Clark, 655 Fed.Appx. 521 (8th Cir. 2016) (unpublished per curiam); see also 18 U.S.C. § 4245 (authorizing commitment and hospitalization of "a person serving a sentence of imprisonment," which cannot extend past "the expiration of the sentence").

         The Bureau determined that his prison sentence was due to end in September 2017. But after an audit in July 2016, the Bureau realized it had made a mistake and had not accounted for the total amount of time that he had spent in custody. Clark's true release date, according to the audit, was October 2015. Rather than release Clark immediately after discovering its error, the government instead filed a petition asking the district court to continue his commitment.

         The petition relied on 18 U.S.C. § 4246, which authorizes the district court to commit "a person in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whose sentence is about to expire" if he or she has "a mental disease or defect" that creates "a substantial risk of bodily injury . . . or serious damage to property." 18 U.S.C. § 4246(a), (d) (emphasis added). Clark moved to dismiss the petition because his sentence had already expired. The district court committed Clark anyway.

         II.

         The circumstances of this case are unusual, but the lone legal question posed by the parties is simple: if Clark's release date had already passed when the government petitioned the district court to commit him, was his sentence still "about to expire"? Id. § 4246(a). The only conceivable answer is no.

         The adverb "about," used in this way, refers to something that is on the verge of happening. See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5 (5th ed. 2011); Webster's Third New International Dictionary 5 (2002). And the verb "to expire," when referring to a discrete time period like a prison sentence, means to end. See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, supra, at 624; Webster's Third New International Dictionary, supra, at 801; cf. Black's Law Dictionary 700 (10th ed. 2014). So a prisoner "whose sentence is about to expire," 18 U.S.C. § 4246(a), has one that has not ended yet, but soon will. This clearly does not describe Clark, whose sentence ended months before the government filed its petition.

         The government argues, however, that the district court had the authority to commit Clark because the Bureau had not yet released him from custody when it filed its petition. It essentially treats the phrase "about to expire" as the same as "about to be released." On its own terms, this argument is a stretch, but even if it were not, the remainder of the statute forecloses it. The statute consistently uses the word "release" to describe when a prisoner is no longer in custody. See id. § 4246(a), (d), (d)(2), (e), (e)(1), (2), (2)(B), (f), (g). The word "expire," by contrast, appears just this once. The natural inference is that when the statute means release, it says so, and when it says "expire," it must mean something else. See Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692, 711 n.9 (2004) (describing the presumption that different words in the same statute mean different things); see also Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 170 (2012) ("[W]here [a] document has used one term in one place, and a materially different term in another, the presumption is that the different term denotes a different idea.").

         Related statutes confirm this conclusion. See generally Wachovia Bank v. Schmidt, 546 U.S. 303, 315-16 (2006) (explaining that "under the in pari materia canon of statutory construction, statutes addressing the same subject matter generally should be read as if they were one law" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)); Scalia & Garner, supra, at 252. The provision setting out how federal prison sentences operate, for example, says that "[a] person who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment . . . shall be committed to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons until the expiration of the term imposed, or until earlier released for satisfactory behavior." 18 U.S.C. ยง 3621(a). This provision makes clear that even though the expectation is that prisoners will be released when their sentences expire, sometimes it happens earlier, meaning that expiration of a sentence and release from custody do not necessarily happen at the same time. The same distinction appears in the provision addressing release, which ...


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