394 U.S. 286 (1969), 199, Harris v. Nelson

Docket Nº:No.199
Citation:394 U.S. 286, 89 S.Ct. 1082, 22 L.Ed.2d 281
Party Name:Harris v. Nelson
Case Date:March 24, 1969
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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394 U.S. 286 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 1082, 22 L.Ed.2d 281

Harris

v.

Nelson

No.199

United States Supreme Court

March 24, 1969

Argued December 9, 1968

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

A state prisoner filed a habeas corpus petition in the Federal District Court, alleging that the admission of certain evidence at his trial was improper because the evidence had been seized incident to an arrest based upon information from an unreliable informant. The District Court ordered an evidentiary hearing and the prisoner served on respondent a series of interrogatories pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure designed to establish the informant's unreliability. The District Court overruled respondent's objections that there was no authority for issuance of the interrogatories. Upon respondent's petition for a writ of mandamus or prohibition the Court of Appeals vacated the District Court's order authorizing the interrogatories, on the grounds that Rule 81(a)(2) made the discovery procedures of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure inapplicable to habeas corpus proceedings, and that the statutory provision for interrogatories in habeas corpus proceedings (28 U.S.C. § 2246) did not authorize their use for discovery. Rule 81(a)(2) at that time provided that the Rules did not apply to habeas corpus proceedings

except to the extent that the practice in such proceedings is not set forth in statutes of the United States and has heretofore conformed to the practice in actions at law or suits in equity.

Held:

1. Federal courts upon an appropriate showing must grant evidentiary hearings to petitioners for writs of habeas corpus and "the power of inquiry on federal habeas corpus is plenary." Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 312 (1963). Pp. 290-292.

2. The intended scope of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the history of habeas corpus procedure make it clear that Rule 81(a)(2) excludes the application of Rule 33 in habeas corpus proceedings. Pp. 292-298.

3. Section 2246 of 28 U.S.C. does not authorize interrogatories in habeas corpus proceedings except in limited circumstances not applicable to this case. Pp. 290, 296.

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4. A district court considering a petition for habeas corpus is free to use or authorize interrogatories or other suitable discovery procedures reasonably fashioned to elicit facts to help the court "dispose of the matter as law and justice require." 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Pp. 290, 298-300.

5. Since Congress has not specified comprehensive procedures for securing the facts which federal courts must have to dispose of habeas corpus petitions, the court may fashion appropriate procedures for development of relevant facts, by analogy to existing rules or judicial usages. Their authority to do so is confirmed by the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651. Pp. 298-300.

378 F.2d 141, reversed and remanded.

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FORTAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FORTAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether state prisoners who have commenced habeas corpus proceedings in a federal district court may, in proper circumstances, utilize the instrument of interrogatories for discovery purposes.

I

Petitioner is the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Respondent is the warden of the California State Prison at an Quentin. The proceeding was initiated by Alfred Walker who had been convicted in the California courts of the crime of possession of marihuana. After exhausting

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state remedies, he filed a petition for habeas corpus in the Federal District Court, alleging that evidence seized in the search incident to his arrest was improperly admitted at his trial. The basis for this claim was his allegation that the arrest and incidental search were based solely on the statement of an informant who, according to Walker's sworn statement, was not shown to have been reliable; who, in fact, was unreliable, and whose statements were accepted by the police without proper precautionary procedures.

The District Court issued an order to show cause and respondent made return. Thereafter, Walker filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing, which the District Court granted. Two months later, Walker served upon the respondent warden a series of interrogatories, pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, seeking discovery of certain facts directed to proof of the informant's unreliability. Respondent filed objections to the interrogatories, alleging the absence of authority for their issuance. The District Judge, without stating his reasons, disallowed the objections and directed that the interrogatories be answered. Respondent applied to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for a writ of mandamus or prohibition. The Ninth Circuit vacated the order of the District Court. It held that the discovery provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were not applicable to habeas corpus proceedings, and that 28 U.S.C. § 2246, the statutory provision specifically relating to the use of interrogatories in habeas corpus proceedings, did not authorize their use for discovery. Wilson v. Harris, 378 F.2d 141 (1967).

Because of the importance of the questions presented and the diversity of views among the district and appellate courts that have considered the problem,1 [89 S.Ct. 1086] we granted

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certiorari. 392 U.S. 925. We agree with the Ninth Circuit that Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is not applicable to habeas corpus proceedings, and [89 S.Ct. 1092] that 28 U.S.C. § 2246 does not authorize interrogatories except in limited circumstances not applicable to this case; but we conclude that, in appropriate circumstances, a district court, confronted by a petition for habeas corpus which establishes a prima facie case for relief, may use or authorize the use of suitable discovery procedures, including interrogatories, reasonably fashioned to elicit facts necessary to help the court to "dispose of the matter as law and justice require." 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the case in order that the District Court may reconsider the matter before it in light of our opinion and judgment.

II

The writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary

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and lawless state action. Its preeminent role is recognized by the admonition in the Constitution that: "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended. . . ." U.S.Const., Art. I, § 9, cl. 2. The scope and flexibility of the writ -- its capacity to reach all manner of illegal detention -- its ability to cut through barriers of form and procedural mazes -- have always been emphasized and jealously guarded by courts and lawmakers. The very nature of the writ demands that it be administered with the initiative and flexibility essential to insure that miscarriages of justice within its reach are surfaced and corrected.

As Blackstone phrased it, habeas corpus is "the great and efficacious writ, in all manner of illegal confinement."2 As this Court said in Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 401-402 (1963), the office of the writ is "to provide a prompt and efficacious remedy for whatever society deems to be intolerable restraints." See Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U.S. 54, 65-67 (1968).

It is now established beyond the reach of reasonable dispute that the federal courts not only may grant evidentiary hearings to applicants, but must do so upon an appropriate showing. Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 313 (1963); Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 464, n.19 (1953). And this Court has emphasized, taking into account the office of the writ and the fact that the petitioner, being in custody, is usually handicapped in developing the evidence needed to support in necessary detail the facts alleged in his petition, that a habeas

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corpus proceeding must not be allowed to founder in a "procedural morass." Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 269 (1948).

There is no higher duty of a court, under our constitutional system, than the careful processing and adjudication [89 S.Ct. 1087] of petitions for writs of habeas corpus for it is in such proceedings that a person in custody charges that error, neglect, or evil purpose has resulted in his unlawful confinement and that he is deprived of his freedom contrary to law. This Court has insistently said that the power of the federal courts to conduct inquiry in habeas corpus is equal to the responsibility which the writ involves:

The language of Congress, the history of the writ, the decisions of this Court, all make clear that the power of inquiry on federal habeas corpus is plenary.

Townsend v. Sain, supra at 312.

In the present case, we are confronted with a procedural problem which tests the reality of these great principles. We are asked by Walker to establish the existence of rights for those in custody to discover facts which may aid their petitions for release. We are asked to do this by declaring that the provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure granting such rights to litigants in civil causes are available to Walker; or if we refuse so to conclude, to affirm the existence of power in the District Court to authorize discovery by written interrogatories. We address ourselves to those issues.

III

Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that: "These rules govern the procedure in the United States district courts in all suits of a civil nature . . . with the exceptions stated in Rule 81." At the time of the decision below Rule 81(a)(2) provided, in relevant part, that the Rules were not applicable in...

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