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Sanctions Against Prisoner for Alleged “Frivolous” Habeas Petition Improper, Tenth Circuit Decides

Sanctions imposed by an Oklahoma trial court on a state prisoner who filed a “frivolous” habeas petition were improper, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held in an unpublished opinion.

Alvin Parker is a frequent litigant in Oklahoma courts. Convicted of second-degree murder, Parker has unsuccessfully sought post-conviction relief eight times in Oklahoma state courts. On his ninth attempt he was sanctioned.

The trial court concluded that Parker’s ninth application for post-conviction relief was frivolous because it included issues that had already been raised and rejected.
Accordingly, the court sanctioned Parker and ordered him to: (1) pay $3,000 for attorney’s fees and costs, court clerk’s costs, and the court’s time and expense; (2) forego 720 days of good time; and (3) relinquish his non-essential personal property to prison officials for nine months.

Parker sought federal habeas relief arguing that the state court’s imposition of sanctions violated due process because his habeas petition, albeit his ninth, was not in fact frivolous.
In his most recent application for post-conviction relief, Parker argued that a key prosecution witness had lied at his trial about the existence of a deal in exchange for leniency; at trial the witness testified there was a deal, but 18 years later during a parole hearing he said there was no such deal.

The federal district court upheld the state court’s sanctions. However, the Tenth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability and reversed.

Each of the courts that considered Parker’s sanctions failed to consider his primary argument: “that there was no evidence that Mr. Parker’s claim was frivolous and therefore no grounds to impose sanctions ... in the first place,” the Tenth Circuit wrote.

A cursory examination of Parker’s ninth petition showed that the claims presented had never been raised before. Indeed, the appellate court concluded, the claim could not have been raised before because it was based on newly-discovered evidence.

And while “[i]t is understandable that officials would become exasperated after a long string of frivolous proceedings, [] that history does not constitute evidence that Mr. Parker’s current argument was repetitive or otherwise frivolous.”

Therefore, because Parker’s claim was not frivolous, the Court of Appeals held that the imposition of sanctions violated Parker’s due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was remanded with instructions to grant Parker’s federal habeas petition. See: Parker v. Province, 339 Fed.Appx. 850 (10th Cir. 2009).

Following remand, the district court ordered the warden of the facility where Parker was housed to “give no further effect to the sanction order.”

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Related legal case

Parker v. Province