ILNews

Court urges early review of offender litigation

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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An Indiana state prison inmate has filed dozens of lawsuits with claims that a painful odor violated his constitutional rights, he's been repeatedly denied access to public records, victimized by excessive force, and not given proper treatment behind bars.

The Indiana Appellate Clerk's Office has 35 of Eric D. Smith's appeals, most being civil suits that include one decided today, and six that remain pending awaiting action.

Today, the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed one of the 29-year-old's string of suits and the authoring jurist used the opinion to encourage trial judges to utilize a 2004 "three-strike" law limiting inmate's ability to file civil suits.

The opinion March 11 is Eric D. Smith v. Indiana Department of Correction, et al., No. 49A02-0706-CV-477.

Smith entered the state's prison system after being convicted of arson in 2001. Specifically, he was found guilty of starting a fire in an apartment complex on the west side of Indianapolis that left 12 families homeless and resulted in $2 million in damages. He was sentenced to 20 years.

He's filed numerous suits since then, the current case involving an August 2005 complaint where Smith sought injunctive and declaratory relief as to his segregated confinement in the Westville facility. He claimed this violated his human rights, according to the opinion, and at one point submitted a 99-page affidavit in support of a motion for summary judgment.

In April 2007, Marion Superior Judge Cynthia Ayers granted summary judgment to the DOC and found that it didn't have jurisdiction on possible violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as Smith claimed had been violated. The Court of Appeals summarily affirms that decision and describes the suit as frivolous.

But it also cited a state statute as a reason to dismiss the suit.

"Given the extraordinary expenditure of public resources in addressing the litigation filed by Smith, and to avoid such unnecessary and unwarranted costs to society in similar matters in the future, we direct trial courts to review and consider the application Indiana Code 34, Article 58 before permitting actions by incarcerated offenders to proceed," Judge Carr Darden wrote as a footnote on the tail end of the 10-page opinion.

The state statute at the focus of this case is Indiana Code 34-58-1-2, which says inmates are not allowed to file new litigation if they have at least three ongoing civil actions that a state court has dismissed. The only permissible reason would be if a court determines that inmate is in "immediate danger of serious bodily injury."

In theory, legitimate lawsuits move forward. Frivolous cases are tossed out.

Another footnote in the opinion notes an interesting finding: that all cases in which the annotated Indiana Code 34-58-2 has been applied involved this particular inmate.

Among the suits Smith has filed, one that gained national recognition was a claim of "cruel and unusual punishment" against the DOC for not supplying him with Rogaine for a thinning hairline. In that suit, he claimed that his baldness caused him mental harm, pain, and self-image problems and he had a constitutional right to hair loss products. The case was dismissed, but not before Smith amended the complaint several times and the Indiana Attorney General's Office was required to respond more than once.

While Smith has previously been unavailable for interviews by Indiana Lawyer, a letter he wrote to the state Attorney General's Office in June 2006 shows that he is proud of his litigation that has taken up time in court.

"Ha Ha! I'm costing the DOC and taxpayers all kinds of money," he wrote. "You guys wanna keep me in prison? Fine! I'm gonna make sure that I'm a costly prisoner... and by the time this 20 years adds up and is over with, I'm gonna cost all of you thousands and thousands of dollars! There's nothing that you can do."
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