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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. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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