March 7, 2011
Opinion in DNA-access case
The case is Skinner v. Switzer. Here is the syllabus:
District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U. S. ___, ___, left unresolved the question whether a convicted state prisoner seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence may assert that claim in a civil rights action under 42 U. S. C. §1983 or may assert the claim in federal court only in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U. S. C. §2254.
A Texas jury convicted petitioner Skinner and sentenced him to death for murdering his girlfriend and her sons. He claimed that a potent alcohol and drug mix rendered him physically unable to commit the brutal murders, and he identified his girlfriend’s uncle as the likely perpetrator. In preparation for trial, the State tested some of the physical evidence, but left untested several items, including knives found on the premises, an axe handle, vaginal swabs, finger-nail clippings, and certain hair samples. More than six years later,Texas enacted Article 64, which allows prisoners to gain postconviction DNA testing in limited circumstances. Invoking Article 64,Skinner twice moved in state court for DNA testing of the untested biological evidence. Both motions were denied. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) affirmed the first denial of relief on the ground that Skinner had not shown, as required by Article 64.03(a)(2), that he “would not have been convicted if exculpatory re-sults had been obtained through DNA testing.” The CCA affirmed the second denial of relief on the ground that Skinner had not shown, as required by Article 64.01(b)(1)(B), that the evidence was not previously tested “through no fault” on his part.
Skinner next filed the instant federal action for injunctive relief under §1983, naming as defendant respondent Switzer, the District Attorney who has custody of the evidence that Skinner would like to have tested. Skinner alleged that Texas violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to provide for the DNA testing he requested. The Magistrate Judge recommended dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim, reasoning that postconviction requests for DNA evidence are cognizable only in habeas corpus, not under §1983. Adopting that recommendation, the District Court dismissed Skinner’s suit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Held: There is federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction over Skinner’s complaint, and the claim he presses is cognizable under §1983. Pp. 7–15.
(a) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) generally requires only a plausible “short and plain” statement of the plaintiff’s claim, not an exposition of his legal argument. Skinner stated his due process claim in a paragraph alleging that the State’s refusal “to release the biological evidence for testing . . . deprived [him] of his liberty interests in utilizing state procedures to obtain reversal of his conviction and/or to obtain a pardon or reduction of his sentence . . . .” His counsel has clarified that Skinner does not challenge the prosecutor’s conduct or the CCA’s decisions; instead, he challenges Texas’ postconviction DNA statute “as construed” by the Texas courts. Pp. 7–8.
(b) The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar Skinner’s suit. This Court has applied the doctrine only in the two cases from which it takes its name, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U. S. 413, District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U. S. 462. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U. S. 280. Given “the narrow ground” the doctrine occupies, id., at 284, the Court has confined Rooker-Feldman “to cases . . . brought by state-court losers. . . inviting district court review and rejection of [a state court’s] judgments.” Ibid. Skinner’s complaint encounters no Rooker-Feldman shoal. “If a federal plaintiff ‘present[s] [an] independent claim,’ ” it is not an impediment to the exercise of federal jurisdiction that the “same or a related question” was earlier aired between the parties in state court. Id., at 292–293. A state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, but a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action. See, e.g., Feldman, 460 U. S., at 487. Because Skinner’s federal case—which challenges not the adverse state-court decisions but the Texas statute they authoritatively construed—falls within the latter category, there was no lack of subject-matter jurisdiction over his federal suit. Pp. 8–10.
(c) Measured against this Court’s prior holdings, Skinner has properly invoked §1983. This Court has several times considered when a state prisoner, complaining of unconstitutional state action, may pursue a civil rights claim under §1983, and when habeas corpus is the prisoner’s sole remedy. The pathmarking decision, Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U. S. 477, concerned a state prisoner who brought a §1983 action for damages, alleging that he had been unlawfully investigated, arrested, tried, and convicted. This Court held that §1983 was not an available remedy because any award in the plaintiff’s favor would “necessarily imply” the invalidity of his conviction. See id., at 487. In contrast, in Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U. S. 74, the Court held that prisoners who challenged the constitutionality of administrative decisions denying them parole eligibility, could proceed under §1983,for they sought no “injunction ordering . . . immediate or speedier release into the community,” id., at 82, and “a favorable judgment [would] not ‘necessarily imply’ the invalidity of [their] conviction[s] or sentence[s],” ibid. Here, success in Skinner’s suit for DNA testing would not “necessarily imply” the invalidity of his conviction. Test results might prove exculpatory, but that outcome is hardly inevitable, for those results could also prove inconclusive or incriminating. Switzer argues that, although Skinner’s immediate aim is DNA testing, his ultimate aim is to use the test results as a platform for attacking his conviction. But she has found no case in which the Court has recognized habeas as the sole remedy where the relief sought would not terminate custody, accelerate the date of release, or reduce the custody level. Contrary to the fears of Switzer and her amici, in the Circuits that currently allow §1983 claims for DNA testing, there has been no flood of litigation seeking postconviction discovery of evidence associated with the questions of guilt or punishment. The projected toll on federal courts is all the more implausible regarding DNA testing claims, for Osborne has rejected substantive due process as a basis for such claims. More generally, in the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Congress has placed constraints on prisoner suits in order to prevent sportive federal-court filings. Nor is there cause for concern that the instant ruling will spill over to claims relying on Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83. Brady, which announced a constitutional requirement addressed to the prosecution’s conduct pretrial, proscribes withholding evidence “favorable to an accused” and “material to [his] guilt or to punishment.” Cone v. Bell, 556 U. S. ___, ___. Unlike DNA testing, which may yield exculpatory, incriminating, or inconclusive results, a successful Brady claim necessarily yields evidence undermining a conviction: Brady claims therefore rank within the traditional core of habeas corpus and outside the province of §1983. Pp. 10–14.
(d) Switzer’s several arguments why Skinner’s complaint should fail for lack of merit, unaddressed by the courts below, are ripe for consideration on remand. P. 14.
363 Fed. Appx. 302, reversed and remanded.
GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KENNEDY and ALITO, JJ., joined.
Opinion on meaning of "collateral review" in AEDPA
The case is Wall v. Kholi. Here is the syllabus:
Respondent was convicted in Rhode Island Superior Court on 10 counts of first-degree sexual assault and sentenced to consecutive life terms. His conviction became final on direct review on May 29, 1996. In addition to his direct appeal, he filed two relevant state motions. One, a May 16, 1996, motion to reduce his sentence under Rhode Island Superior Court Rule of Criminal Procedure 35, was denied. The State Supreme Court affirmed on January 16, 1998. The second, a state postconviction relief motion, was also denied. That decision was affirmed on December 14, 2006. When respondent filed his federal habeas petition, his conviction had been final for over 11 years. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) generally requires a federal petition to be filed within one year of the date on which a judgment became final, 28 U. S. C. §2244(d)(1)(A), but “a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review” tolls that period, §2244(d)(2). Respondent’s postconviction relief motion tolled the period for over nine years, but his Rule 35 motion must also trigger the tolling provision for his habeas petition to be timely. The District Court dismissed the petition as untimely, adopting the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion that the Rule 35 motion was not “a properly filed application for . . . collateral review” under §2244(d)(2). The First Circuit reversed.
1. The phrase “collateral review” in §2244(d)(2) means judicial review of a judgment in a proceeding that is not part of direct review. Pp. 4–8.
(a) The parties agree that the answer to the question whether a motion to reduce sentence is an “application for State post-conviction or other collateral review” turns on the meaning of “collateral review,” but they disagree about what that meaning should be. Pp.4–5.
(b) Because “collateral review” is not defined in AEDPA, the Court begins with the ordinary understanding of that phrase. By definition, “collateral” describes something that is “indirect,” not direct. 3 Oxford English Dictionary 473. This suggests that “collateral” review is not part of direct review. This conclusion is supported by the definition of the related phrase “collateral attack” and by the Court’s prior use of the term “collateral” to describe proceedings that are separate from the direct review process. Pp. 5–7.
(c) The term “review” is best understood as a “judicial reexamination.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1944. Pp.7–8.
2. A Rule 35 motion to reduce sentence under Rhode Island law is an application for “collateral review” that triggers AEDPA’s tolling provision. Pp. 8–15.
(a) Rhode Island’s Rule 35 is similar to the version of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35 in effect before the federal Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The Rule permits a court to provide relief, as relevant here, to “reduce any sentence,” and it is generally addressed to the sound discretion of the sentencing justice. Under the limited review available, an appellate court may disturb the trial justice’s decision if the sentence imposed is without justification and is grossly disparate when compared to sentences for similar offenses. Pp. 8–9.
(b) Keeping these principles in mind, a Rule 35 sentence reduction proceeding is “collateral.” The parties agree that the motion is not part of the direct review process, and both this Court and lowerfederal courts have described a motion to reduce sentence under old Federal Rule 35 as invoking a “collateral” remedy. Therefore, it is not difficult to conclude that Rhode Island’s motion to reduce sentence is “collateral.” A Rule 35 motion also calls for “review” of the sentence within §2244(d)(2)’s meaning. The decision to reduce a sentence involves judicial reexamination of the sentence to determine whether a more lenient sentence is proper. The trial justice is guided by several sentencing factors in making that decision. And those factors are also used by the State Supreme Court in evaluating the trial justice’s justifications for the sentence. Pp. 9–11.
(c) Rhode Island’s arguments in support of its opposing view that “collateral review” includes only “legal” challenges to a conviction or sentence, and thus excludes motions for a discretionary sentence reduction, are unpersuasive. Nor does “collateral review” turn on whether a motion is part of the same criminal case. Pp. 11–15.
582 F. 3d 147, affirmed.
ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA, J., joined, except as to footnote 3. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part.
March 6, 2011
DiBari on restitution in cases involving possession of child pornography
Dennis F. DiBari has posted Restoring Restitution: The Role of Proximate Causation in Child Pornography Possession Cases Where Restitution is Sought (Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 33, 2011, Forthcoming) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The issue of causation is the central reason why possession cases are so problematic for many district courts. Unlike cases involving direct abuse or actual production of child pornography, defendants in possession cases usually have had no contact with the victims. The defendants often do not know the victim's true identity. In fact, the victims usually do not know the defendants exist until only after they are alerted by notices from the federal government. The only link defendants have to their victims is, of course, the physical possession of their image. It is difficult for courts to even begin to quantify the amount of harm done to the victim by the defendant's possession of their depiction. In addition, most victims have experienced the trauma of multiple crimes and therefore have different layers of victimization; isolating the damage done by the original abuse, the production, the distribution, and end-use possession has been described as an “evidentiary nightmare.” Simply put, courts are stumbling over causation before they award restitution in possession cases because they are having great difficulty linking the defendant's act to the victim's harm.
This Note will examine the developing split between district courts across the nation over the ordering of restitution in child pornography possession cases. Part I of this Note will provide a brief primer on the developments leading up to the creation of the problem. Part II will provide a comprehensive analysis of how federal courts have been approaching restitution in possession cases, specifically focusing on the role proximate causation plays in a court's final disposition on restitution. Part III will discuss the calculation of restitution awards in possession cases and derivative issues, such as the propriety of using a joint and several liability theory. Part IV will explore the constitutional dimensions of these restitution awards, evaluating the risk of violating the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines. Finally, Part V recommends a principled approach to ordering restitution in possession cases, founded in the underlying concepts of criminal restitution. This Note will conclude that a district court can avoid punishing defendants for harm they did not cause by being vigilant of how they analyze proximate causation in a possession case.
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