Houston v. Lack

Decision Date24 June 1988
Docket NumberNo. 87-5428,87-5428
Citation487 U.S. 266,101 L.Ed.2d 245,108 S.Ct. 2379
PartiesPrentiss HOUSTON, Petitioner v. Larry LACK, Warden
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

While incarcerated in a Tennessee prison, petitioner drafted a pro se notice of appeal from the Federal District Court's judgment dismissing his pro se habeas corpus petition, and, 27 days after the judgment, deposited the notice with the prison authorities for mailing to the District Court. The date of deposit was recorded in the prison's outgoing mail log. Because petitioner lacked the necessary funds, prison authorities refused his requests to certify the notice for proof that it had been deposited for mailing on the day in question and to send the notice air mail. Although the record contains no evidence of when the prison authorities actually mailed the notice or when the District Court actually received it, the court stamped the notice "filed" 31 days after the habeas judgment—that is, one day after the expiration of the 30-day filing period for taking an appeal under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1). For this reason, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal as jurisdictionally out of time.

Held: Under Rule 4(a)(1), pro se prisoners' notices of appeal are "filed" at the moment of delivery to prison authorities for forwarding to the district court. Cf. Fallen v. United States, 378 U.S. 139, 84 S.Ct. 1689, 12 L.Ed.2d 760 (Stewart, J., concurring). Unskilled in law, unaided by counsel, and unable to leave the prison, a pro se prisoner's control over the processing of his notice necessarily ceases as soon as he hands it over to the only public officials to whom he has access—the prison authorities—and the only information he will likely have is the date he delivered the notice to those authorities and the date ultimately stamped upon it. The 30-day deadline for filing notices of appeal set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2107, which applies to civil actions including habeas proceedings, does not preclude relief for petitioner, since that statute does not define when a notice has been "filed" nor in any way suggests that, in the unique circumstances of a pro se prisoner, it would be inappropriate to conclude that such filing occurs at the moment of delivery to prison officials. Such conclusion is not negated by the fact that Rules 3(a) and 4(a)(1) specify that the notice should be "filed with the clerk of the District Court," since the relevant question is one of timing, not destination, and neither Rule sets forth criteria for determining the moment at which the filing has occurred. The general rule that receipt by the court clerk constitutes filing, although appropri- ate for most civil appeals, should not apply in the pro se prisoner context. Nothing in either Rule 3(a) or Rule 4(a)(1) compels the conclusion that receipt by the clerk must be the moment of filing in all cases, and, in fact, a number of federal courts have recognized exceptions to the general principle. Moreover, the rationale for the general rule is that the appellant has no control over delays after the court clerk's receipt of the notice—a rationale that suggests that the moment of filing here should be the moment when the pro se prisoner necessarily loses control over his notice: the moment of delivery to prison authorities for forwarding. The bright-line rule recognizing receipt by prison authorities as the moment of filing will also decrease disputes and uncertainty as to when a filing actually occurred, since such authorities keep detailed logs for recording the date and time at which they receive papers for mailing and can readily dispute a prisoner's contrary assertions. Relying on the date of receipt, by contrast, would raise difficult questions whether the prison authorities, the Postal Service, or the court clerk is to blame for any delay. Pp. 269-276.

819 F.2d 289 (CA 6 1987) reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 277.

Penny J. White, Johnson City, Tenn., for petitioner.

Jerry L. Smith, Nashville, Tenn., for respondent.

- Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Pro se prisoners can file notices of appeal to the federal courts of appeals only by delivering them to prison authorities for forwarding to the appropriate district court. The question we decide in this case is whether under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1) such notices are to be considered filed at the moment of delivery to prison authorities for forwarding or at some later point in time.

I

Incarcerated in a Tennessee prison, petitioner Prentiss Houston filed a pro se petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court in Tennessee. That court declined to appoint counsel and entered judgment dismissing the habeas petition on January 7, 1986. Still acting pro se, petitioner drafted a notice of appeal and, on February 3, 1986 (27 days after the judgment), deposited it with the prison authorities for mailing to the District Court. This date of deposit was recorded in the prison log of outgoing mail. Petitioner also states without contradiction that he requested the prison to certify his notice for proof that it had been deposited for mailing on that date and requested that the notice be sent air mail, but that the prison refused these requests because he lacked funds to pay the fees the prison charged for such services. The record does not contain the envelope in which the notice of appeal was mailed, and therefore does not contain the postmark or any other evidence of when the prison authorities actually mailed the letter. The prison log, however, suggests that in addressing the notice the petitioner may have mistakenly used the post office box number of the Tennessee Supreme Court rather than that of the Federal District Court (both of which are in Jackson, Tennessee, approximately 81 miles from the prison). Although there is no direct evidence of the date on which the District Court received the notice, the notice was stamped "filed" by the Clerk of the District Court at 8:30 a.m. on February 7, 1986, 31 days after the District Court's judgment was entered—that is, one day after the expiration of the 30-day filing period for taking an appeal established by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1).

Neither the District Court nor respondent suggested that the notice of appeal might be untimely. Rather, the District Court issued a certificate of probable cause on February 18, 1986, noting that the appeal presented a "question of first impression" in the jurisdiction. App. 22. On March 5, 1986, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit circulated a briefing schedule to the parties. On March 21, 1986, however, 13 days after the time had expired to request an extension of the time for filing a notice of appeal under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5), the Court of Appeals discovered the time problem concerning the filing of petitioner's notice of appeal and alerted the parties by entering an order requiring petitioner to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. Eventually the Court of Appeals appointed counsel to argue the time question for petitioner. On May 22, 1987, the court entered an order dismissing the appeal as jurisdictionally out of time. We granted certiorari, 484 U.S. 1025, 108 S.Ct. 747, 98 L.Ed.2d 760 (1988), and now reverse.

II

We last addressed questions concerning the timely filing of notices of appeals by pro se prisoners in Fallen v. United States, 378 U.S. 139, 84 S.Ct. 1689, 12 L.Ed.2d 760 (1964). Fallen involved what was then Rule 37(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (the substance of which now appears in Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)), under which a criminal defendant seeking to appeal had to file a notice of appeal with the clerk of the district court within 10 days after entry of the judgment being appealed.1 Two days before the 10-day deadline, Fallen, acting without counsel and while incarcerated, deposited a notice of appeal with prison authorities for mailing to the Clerk of the District Court. The notice, however, was not received by the Clerk of the court until four days after the deadline. We noted that "the timely filing of a notice of appeal is a jurisdictional prerequisite to the hearing of the appeal," 378 U.S., at 142, 84 S.Ct., at 1691-1692, but concluded that Rule 37(a) could not be read literally to bar Fallen's appeal because, under the circumstances of that case, Fallen "had done all that could reasonably be expected to get the letter to its destination within the required 10 days." Id., at 144, 84 S.Ct., at 1692-1693. Justice Stewart, joined by Justices Clark, Harlan, and BRENNAN, concurred on the ground that "for purposes of Rule 37(a)(2), a defendant incarcerated in a federal prison and acting without the aid of counsel files his notice of appeal in time, if, within the 10-day period provided by the Rule, he delivers such notice to the prison authorities for forwarding to the clerk of the District Court. In other words, in such a case the jailer is in effect the clerk of the District Court within the meaning of Rule 37." Ibid.

We conclude that the analysis of the concurring opinion in Fallen applies here and that petitioner thus filed his notice within the requisite 30-day period when, three days before the deadline, he delivered the notice to prison authorities for forwarding to the District Court. The situation of prisoners seeking to appeal without the aid of counsel is unique. Such prisoners cannot take the steps other litigants can take to monitor the processing of their notices of appeal and to en- sure that the court clerk receives and stamps their notices of appeal before the 30-day deadline. Unlike other...

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