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Justices: 'Three Strikes Law' unconstitutional

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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A four-year-old state statute aimed at limiting frivolous lawsuits filed by prison inmates is unconstitutional because it effectively closes the courthouse doors altogether for certain people, a split Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

Three of the five justices - Justices Theodore Boehm, Robert Rucker, and Brent Dickson - agreed that the state's 2004 "Three Strikes Law" violates the Indiana Constitution's Open Courts Clause. Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Frank Sullivan disagreed and observed their colleagues' decision means many Hoosier litigants will have to wait longer for their day in court because of filings from "the very most abusive frequent filers in the state's prisons."

The 3-2 decision comes in Eric D. Smith v. Indiana Department of Correction, et al., No. 49S02-0804-CV-166, but it also brings with it unanimous decisions in three other suits from another inmate based on the majority's rationale in Smith. Those cases are James H. Higgason v. Indiana DOC, Nos. 46S04-0804-CV-167, 46S03-0804-CV-168, and 46S05-0804-CV-169. All four cases were granted transfer with the opinions today.

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 and is incarcerated at the Westville Correctional Facility.

He's filed dozens of suits since then, including the current one that involved his prison cell creation of a makeshift hammock - made from his bed sheet and water pipe - and refusal to come down until correctional officers provided him with copies of a brief he planned to file in litigation before the Indiana Court of Appeals. They used chemical spray and pepper balls to force him down, and he later filed an injury claim that the Marion Superior Court dismissed as frivolous under the state law.

Meanwhile, Higgason is also a state prison inmate incarcerated following a burglary conviction in 1985 that led to 25 years imprisonment because of his habitual offender status. Higgason brought the three claims addressed by the court today over photocopying fees for legal documents in several cases, all of which had been dismissed as frivolous.

At issue is Indiana Code 34-58-2-1, 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 dismissed.

The court didn't address the other 2004-adopted law IC 34-58-1-2, known as the Frivolous Claim Law, which Smith and Higgason didn't challenge as it provides that a court shall review complaints and petitions filed by offenders to determine if a claim should proceed.

In writing for the majority, Justice Boehm noted that Indiana's Three Strikes Law goes further than other jurisdictions attempting to limit frivolous claims from inmates.

"The Indiana Constitution does not balance the inconvenience of entertaining a claim against the right to seek redress from the courts subject to reasonable conditions," Justice Boehm wrote. "To the contrary, the right to petition the courts is absolute. This does not mean that meritless claims may not be summarily dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law. It does mean that an individualized assessment of each claim is required, and a claim cannot be dismissed on the basis of who presents it rather than whether it has merit."

Justices relied on everything from state and federal caselaw in other jurisdictions, those state constitutions, the Indiana Constitution of 1816, and the English Magna Carta charter of 1215.

"Indiana is unique in imposing a complete ban on filing based on the plaintiff's prior litigation," Justice Boehm wrote. "The (law) sweeps with a broader brush than the law of any other United States jurisdiction because it operates as an indiscriminate statutory ban, not merely a condition to access to the courts. The law bars claims purely on the basis of the plaintiff's prior activity without regard to the merits of the claims presented."

But Chief Justice Shepard disagreed in a dissent that the majority describes as unfounded, contending that the decision will clog the courts to the exclusion of legitimate litigants.

Describing Smith as an "excellent poster boy" to highlight the Three Strikes Law and his amount of serial lawsuits as "impressive," the chief justice wrote the majority is taking an extraordinary step that is "quite paradoxal."

"The majority rates the cause of assuring Smith a hearing on the merits of every lawsuit he chooses to file as so important to the life of our state that it takes the extraordinary step of invalidating the General Assembly's effort to assure access to justice for all of Indiana's citizens," he wrote. "The decision to do so is not compelled by the organic documents of Western justice. One can revere the Magna Carta and still say with confidence that those who created it would be appalled that so many citizens should be pushed aside to make room for prison inmates pursuing their fifteenth or one hundred fifteenth lawsuit."

Justice Sullivan wrote in his dissent that the majority goes much further than necessary to protect a Hoosier's cherished right of access to courts, saying the legislature created a reasonable balance between that right and prison inmate litigation.

Both Chief Justice Shepard and Justice Sullivan concurred in result with the Higgason rulings, with Justice Sullivan noting that he believed the Three Strikes Law was constitutional as applied to Higgason but that the claim could be dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law.

All four cases are reversed and remanded. In Smith, the justices ordered the trial judge to determine whether the claim should be dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law. Higgason's three claims are to be dismissed under that statute, the court ordered.
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  1. He TIL team,please zap this comment too since it was merely marking a scammer and not reflecting on the story. Thanks, happy Monday, keep up the fine work.

  2. You just need my social security number sent to your Gmail account to process then loan, right? Beware scammers indeed.

  3. The appellate court just said doctors can be sued for reporting child abuse. The most dangerous form of child abuse with the highest mortality rate of any form of child abuse (between 6% and 9% according to the below listed studies). Now doctors will be far less likely to report this form of dangerous child abuse in Indiana. If you want to know what this is, google the names Lacey Spears, Julie Conley (and look at what happened when uninformed judges returned that child against medical advice), Hope Ybarra, and Dixie Blanchard. Here is some really good reporting on what this allegation was: http://media.star-telegram.com/Munchausenmoms/ Here are the two research papers: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0145213487900810 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213403000309 25% of sibling are dead in that second study. 25%!!! Unbelievable ruling. Chilling. Wrong.

  4. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  5. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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