Due Process Required Before Department of Corrections Can Change Interpretation of Sentence

On May 28, 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided Tant v. S.C. Department of Corrections.  While recognizing a duty and responsibility for the Department of Corrections to correct errors in its records, our Court recognized “the reality that an individual’s freedom is in implicated in these determinations.”  The Court held, “[W]henever the Department alters an inmate’s sentence in its records, it must give the inmate formal notice of the change and advise him of his right to file a grievance and obtain a hearing.”

Our Court then addressed the procedures the Department of Corrections must follow when interpreting a judge’s sentence.   The “Department is confined to the face of the sentencing sheets absent ambiguity.”  Because the sentencing sheets in Tant’s case were ambiguous, the sentencing hearing transcript could be considered.  The Court, however, was clear that the Department of Corrections cannot consider a letter written by the sentencing judge long after the sentencing hearing—in this case 2 ½ years later—because the judge no “longer had jurisdiction over the case.”

Tant is a mixed bag.  The Court correctly requires the Department of Corrections to provide due process, i.e. notice and an opportunity to be heard, before it changes its interpretation of a person’s sentence.  The clarification of the procedures for interpreting a sentence could have unintended consequences.  Sometimes the ambiguity in the sentence is not noticed until after the sentencing judge loses jurisdiction.  Thus, it is important for the person’s lawyer to do everything possible prior to, during, and immediately after sentencing to make sure that the sentence is clear, unambiguous, and complies with any negotiations.

Please click this link to read the Court’s opinion in Tant v. S.C. Department of Corrections.