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Federal Prisoner in State Jail Custody Illegally Denied State Court Name Change Petition

Federal Prisoner in State Jail Custody Illegally Denied State Court Name Change Petition

The California Court of Appeal has reversed the Fresno Superior Court’s denial of a name-change petition filed by a federal prisoner awaiting sentencing while housed in the Fresno County Jail. The California law precluding a state prisoner from changing his name while incarcerated was inappropriately applied to this federal prisoner.

Timothy Wayne Arnett was in jail awaiting federal court sentencing, where he faced over 140 years for seven armed bank robberies (to be served consecutively to a ten-year term for another such robbery in Oregon). He applied to the Fresno Superior Court under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1276, et seq. to change his name to August Damian Kokopelli. The U.S. Attorney was invited to respond – he objected because the name change was not for religious (or other constitutional) purposes; Arnett’s name change would cause confusion in federal records because his current name was already on his judgment/commitment order; and because California law expressly precludes a “state prison inmate” from changing his name while incarcerated.

The Superior Court denied the petition solely on the grounds that it would thus be illegal. On appeal, Arnett successfully argued that it was not illegal for a federal prisoner to change his name.

California law gives state courts discretion when approving or denying name-change petitions. That includes discretion as to whether such a name change would adversely affect the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) legitimate penological interests. Likewise, California law vests discretion with superior courts to consider whether the applicant is required to register as a sex offender or if public safety would be adversely affected.

But that is not what the Fresno court did. It simply ruled that Arnett’s name change would be illegal under California law because he was a prisoner in the state. However, he was not “a state prisoner.” Moreover, no federal authority makes a federal prisoner’s name change “illegal.” Indeed, BOP rules provide that a federal prisoner may thus petition a federal court.

Accordingly, the state appellate court reversed and remanded to the Fresno court to reconsider Arnett’s petition, exercising discretion per § 1276, et seq. Arnett is not guaranteed, however, that the BOP will accept a state-court name change. Thus, any victory in state court may be hollow. Indeed, he might well die Timothy Wayne Arnett in federal prison if he relies on state courts for his name-change petition. See: In re Arnett, 148 Cal.App.4th 654, 56 Cal.Rptr.3d 1 (Cal.App. 5 Dist. 2007).

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Related legal case

In re Arnett