Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prison Mailbox Rule

I can hear the conversation now:
Inmate talking to prison guard: Okay, here is my motion for a new trial.  It is due to the court in two days.  I am representing myself and I think I have a good argument that will help me get out of here.  Please make sure that this envelope gets put in the outgoing mail today.  Thanks Bob.

Prison Guard to Inmate(Sarcastically) Sure James, I'll bet you have a great argument.  Are gonna say that the cocaine fairy came down from her white powdery cloud and hid her excess product under your pillow?  I'll get this envelope over to the outgoing mail right away.  I'll consider it my most important task of the day.
Of course, the motion does not make it to the court on time and the prisoner's motion is denied as untimely filed.  It wasn't his fault.  What more could he have done?  This scenario begs the question:

Does the "mailbox rule" apply to pro se prisoners such that a document is deemed timely filed when placed in the hands of prison authorities? The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals says... 

In order to appeal a criminal conviction in Texas a person must file a notice of appeal with the court within 30 days from the day on which the sentenced is imposed or within 90 days from the day on which the sentence is imposed, if he/she files a timely (within 30 days) motion for new trial.  See Tex. R. App. P. 26.2(a).  To file a motion for new trial or notice of appeal by mail, the Texas mailbox rule requires that the motion/notice arrive within 10 days after the filing deadline and have been deposited in the mail the last day before the filing.  How does this rule apply to prisoners that represent themselves on appeal?

In Campbell v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered this as an issue of first impression.  In Campbell, the appellant argued:
that pro se prisoners occupy a distinct niche in the appellate universe when it comes to the crucial act of timely filing a document.  He notes that such a litigant cannot select by which method he chooses to accomplish filing.  He argues that the pro se litigant is condemned to place his trust in prison authorities to deliver pleadings to the proper filing agency and secure the necessary stamp of receipt.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas Supreme Court cases that have recognized a prison mailbox rule, the CCA held that
Like our sister courts, we decline to penalize a pro se inmate who timely delivers a document to the prison mailbox.
Borrowing its reasoning from the Supreme Court opinion in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988), the court recognized:
Unlike other litigants, pro se prisoners cannot personally travel to the courthouse to see that the notice is stamped 'filed' or to establish the date on which the court recieved the notice...Unskilled in law, unaided by counsel, and unable to leave the prison, [the pro se prisoner's] control over the processing of his notice necessarily ceases as soon as he hands it over to the only public officials to whom he has access - the prison authorities.  We hold that the pleadings of pro se inmates shall be deemed filed at the time they are delivered to prison authorities for forwarding to the court clerk.