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Fifth Circuit Holds Prisoner May Sign and Deliver Habeas-Related Motion on Behalf of Fellow Prisoner Under Prison Mailbox Rule

by Dale Chappell

A prisoner may sign and deliver a habeas-related motion to prison officials for timely mailing under the “prison mailbox rule” on behalf of another prisoner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held on January 12, 2018.

After the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas denied John Uranga’s habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his life sentence in state prison for possessing less than 4 grams of methamphetamine as a habitual felony offender—a fellow prisoner helping him with his petition signed Uranga’s name on his behalf and mailed a motion to “reconsider” the court’s judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). This was to ensure Uranga would meet the deadline for filing since the prison was on lockdown. The district court denied Uranga’s motion as untimely filed, and he appealed.

On appeal, there were several issues. The first issue was whether Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion was timely filed to toll the time to appeal. The next issue was whether the motion was actually an improper “successive” habeas petition. The final issue was whether Uranga was entitled to relief on the actual claim in his habeas petition.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2253, a court of appeals does not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal from the denial of a § 2254 petition unless a certificate of appealability (“COA”) has been granted, finding that the petitioner’s issues are debatable or should proceed further. While the district court had refused to grant Uranga a COA, a judge on the Fifth Circuit did, effectively giving the Court jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

The next jurisdictional hurdle was whether Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion was timely filed. A Rule 59(e) motion is timely if filed within 28 days of the judgment it is attacking, which in this case was § 2254 judgment. If Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion was filed after the 28-day filing period, it would not have tolled the time to appeal.

In Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court “held that a pro se prisoner’s notice of appeal under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1) is deemed filed as of the date the notice is delivered to prison officials for mailing.” This is commonly referred to as the “prisoner mailbox rule.” The Fifth Circuit subsequently extended the prison mailbox rule to other filings by pro se prisoners, specifically including Rule 59(e) motions. Brown v. Taylor, 829 F.3d 365 (5th Cir. 2016).

In the present case, Uranga arranged for a fellow prisoner who was helping him with his habeas petition, Gordon Ray Simmonds, to file a declaration that it was necessary for him to sign Uranga’s motion on his behalf and deliver it to prisoner officials for mailing in order to meet the filing deadline. Simmonds explained that he had to sign Uranga’s petition and deliver it to prison officials because the facility was on lockdown at the time, and that was the only way for Uranga to meet the filing deadline.

The State argued that because Uranga himself did not sign and deliver his Rule 59(e) motion to prison officials, the prisoner mailbox rule did not apply, and thus Uranga’s motion was filed after the 28-day deadline. The district court agreed. It concluded that since Simmonds was a non-party and not a licensed attorney he lacked authority to sign Uranga’s motion on his behalf. In addition, the court concluded that the prison mailbox rule does not apply when a motion is given to a fellow prisoner to deliver to prison officials for mailing. The Fifth Circuit disagreed.

The Court pointed out that the district court failed to apply specific rules applicable to § 2254 proceedings that permit someone other than the prisoner or licensed attorney to sign a habeas petition under specific circumstances. Under § 2242, “an application for a writ of habeas corpus shall be in writing signed and verified by the person for whose relief it is intended or by someone acting in his behalf.” The Court explained this “next friend” rule applies when the filing explains (1) why the petitioner himself cannot sign the filing, and (2) the relationship and interest of the person signing for the petitioner as a “next friend.” While § 2242 mentions only habeas petitions, the Court expanded the statute to apply to habeas-related filings, such as those under Rule 59(e).

The Court concluded that there is no requirement under the prison mailbox rule for the prisoner himself to personally deliver the documents to be filed to prison officials. That is, a fellow prisoner serving as a “next friend” may deliver the documents under the prison mailbox rule.

The Court noted that the Ninth Circuit similarly held in Hernandez v. Spearman, 764 F.3d 1071 (9th Cir. 2014), that it does not matter who hands the filing to prison officials in order to invoke the prison mailbox rule, and in Warren v. Cardwell, 621 F.2d 319 (9th Cir. 1980), that a “next friend” could sign and file a petition where the prison was on lockdown.

Finding that Simmonds had the legal authority to sign Uranga’s petition as a “next friend” and to deliver it to prison officials for mailing, the Court held that Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion was timely filed under the prison mailbox rule.

The last jurisdictional hurdle was whether Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion was actually an improper “successive” motion, which the district court ruled it was. A motion under Rule 59(e) or Rule 60(b) challenging a judgment in a habeas action is considered another habeas petition if it raises new grounds for relief or attacks the district court’s reasoning for denying a claim on the merits, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005). Because 28 U.S.C. § 2244 creates a jurisdictional bar on district courts from hearing successive habeas petitions without authorization from a court of appeals, the district court could not have heard Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion, if it was truly a successive habeas petition.

However, the Supreme Court also held in Gonzalez that if the motion attacks “some defect in the integrity of the federal habeas proceedings,” it is not a successive habeas petition. The Fifth Circuit concluded that Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion attacking the district court’s denial of his motion to amend his habeas petition was not an attack on the merits of his claim, but was a proper Rule 59(e) motion attacking the proceedings.

Because Uranga’s Rule 59(e) motion was timely filed and was not a successive habeas petition, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Uranga’s appeal was timely filed and the Court therefore had jurisdiction.

Moving to the merits of Uranga’s claim that he was denied an impartial jury, the Fifth Circuit agreed that one of the jurors was biased against Uranga and that his petition should have been granted.

During a police chase, Uranga had driven onto someone’s lawn and caused property damage. When the video of the chase was played to the jury, one of the jurors realized it was his own lawn Uranga had damaged. When the judge questioned the juror away from the other jurors on whether he could still be impartial, the juror said he could, so the court allowed him to participate in the penalty phase.

The trial court erred, the Fifth Circuit said. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that an accused has the right to a trial by an impartial jury. Nevertheless, the trial court determined that neither the state constitution nor U.S. Constitution provided for such a claim and dismissed Uranga’s petition.

Although juror bias is found in only “extreme situations,” the Fifth Circuit said, bias may be found when the facts “are such that they would inherently create in a juror a substantial emotional involvement, adversely affecting impartiality.” The video offered by the State during the penalty phase clearly showed that Uranga had damaged the juror’s own lawn. “Damage nonetheless was personal to the juror,” the Court concluded, and found that Uranga’s habeas petition should have been granted.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the district court denying Uranga’s § 2254 application and remanded the case to the district court.

Additionally, the Court directed that a writ of habeas corpus be issued, unless he is resentenced within 90 days. See: Uranga v. Davis, 879 F.3d 646 (5th Cir. 2018). 

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