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'Prison mailbox rule' applies to direct appeals

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The "prison mailbox rule," which the Indiana Court of Appeals had previously determined applies in post-conviction proceedings, also is applicable in direct appeals, the appellate court decided today.

In Robert E. Lawrence II v. State of Indiana, No. 29A02-0906-CR-580, the Court of Appeals ruled the trial court erred when it denied Robert Lawrence II permission to file a belated notice of appeal because his appeal was timely filed.

The trial court originally sentenced Lawrence Dec. 10, 2008, to 1,095 days in the Indiana Department of Correction, with all but one year suspended. The trial court amended the sentence two days later, saying it should be all but 703 days were suspended.

While incarcerated, Lawrence discovered more confusion over his sentence and drafted his request to appeal on Jan. 9, 2009. He gave it to a Reception and Diagnostic Center staff member to mail. Because he didn't have access to the law library on that date, his mail was handled outside the regular law library process - outgoing inmate mail on the weekends isn't processed, logged, or provide postmarks.

The trial court received the notice Jan. 16 and ruled it received the mail after the 30-day deadline to request an appeal and that Lawrence should pursue a belated motion to appeal. The trial court then denied him permission to file the belated notice of appeal.

The state had argued that Indiana hasn't stated a prison mailbox rule for criminal direct appeals. That rule says pro se filings from an incarcerated litigant are considered filed at the time they are delivered to prison authorities for forwarding to the court. Indiana has recognized that rule in the post-conviction context in Dowell v. State, 908 N.E.2d 643 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009); the state claims that ruling only applies in state post-conviction proceedings and depositing a pleading with prison officials isn't recognized by Indiana Trial Rule 5(F) as a permissible manner of filing.

"We do not believe the holding in Dowell was intended to foreclose the prison mailbox rule's application to other matters; there was simply no need to make a more sweeping pronouncement as to its application to situations not relevant to that case," wrote Judge Margret Robb. She noted the appellate court found no reason why the same analysis making it applicable in post-conviction proceedings shouldn't also apply to direct appeals.

Lawrence's request for an appeal was given to prison officials five days before his deadline to file the notice of appeal, so it was timely filed. As such, the appellate court granted him permission to pursue a belated appeal on the merits.

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