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Mississippi Supreme Court Holds Substance, Not Label, of Prisoner Petitions Governs

Mississippi courts must construe prisoner filings based on their substance, and not how they are labeled, the Supreme Court of Mississippi decided.

Dennis Dobbs, a Mississippi state prisoner, filed a “Petition for an Order to Show Cause” with the Marshall County Circuit Court complaining about the lack of air-conditioning and other inhumane conditions at the Marshall County Correctional Facility. Dobbs used the show cause petition instead of a 42 U.S.C. 1983 form because the law library did not have any section 1983 forms. Dobbs specifically averred in his petition that he “was not attacking the legality of his sentence.” Nonetheless, the court construed Dobbs’ petition as a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to the Mississippi Uniform Post-Conviction Collateral Relief Act and denied relief. Dobbs appealed the circuit court’s decision and the court of appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi granted certiorari and reversed. “Dobbs explicitly stated in his petition that he was not attacking the legality of his sentence, nor did he even inferentially attack the legality of his conviction,” the court wrote. “As such, and due to the lack of jurisdiction, the Circuit Court of Marshall County should have treated Dobb’s filings as non-post-conviction relief filings.”

The matter was remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision. See: Dobbs v. State of Mississippi, 6 So.3d 1085 (Sup. Ct. Miss. 2009).

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Related legal case

Dobbs v. State of Mississippi