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Ninth Circuit Rules Right to Court Access Violated When Lockdown Prevents Prisoner from Researching Issues Related to Direct Appeal

by Mike Rigby

In an amended opinion filed on November 19, 2010, the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s claims that 1) his constitutional right of access of the courts was violated when, during the limited time period in which he could have appealed his criminal conviction, he was denied use of the prison law library and not provided with any alternative means of doing legal research because his unit was on lockdown; and 2) prison officials violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by forcing him to choose between his constitutional right to exercise and his constitutional right of access to the courts when the prison was not on lockdown.

After being convicted of two counts of burglary pursuant to a plea bargain, California prisoner Paul Eric Hebbe received a prison sentence of 18 years and four months. Upon appealing his conviction, his pro bono appellate counsel filed a so-called Wende brief, indicating that he could find no legitimate issues to bring to the court’s attention. The court then advised Hebbe that he could file a supplemental pro se brief to raise any issues that counsel might have overlooked. The court gave him 30 days to file the supplemental brief. However, because Hebbe’s unit was on lockdown status as a result of a fight earlier that month, he could not access the prison law library for the entire 30-day period. He missed the deadline and his appeal was denied.

During subsequent months, the facility where Hebbe was housed was intermittently on and off lockdown status. During “regular” program times (roughly eight out of 15 months between November 1998 and February 2000), Hebbe was allowed out of his cell only eight hours per week; he could use that time, in two-hour daily increments four days a week, either to exercise outdoors or use the law library.

In February 2000, Hebbe filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court dismissed two of his three claims and the third was decided by a jury in favor of the defendant prison officials.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit first joined five other circuits in holding that pro se complaints should continue to be liberally construed, notwithstanding the recent Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) [PLN, July 2009, p.18], which raised the standard for pleadings generally.

As to Hebbe’s access-to-court claim, the Ninth Circuit held that “Hebbe’s claim that he was frustrated in his desire to use the law library facilities to research the pro se brief that he wished to file on direct appeal of his state court conviction plausibly alleges exactly the type of ‘actual injury’” required by Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996) [PLN, Aug. 1996, p.1].

Regarding Hebbe’s Eighth Amendment claim, the Court of Appeals, noting the “continu[ing] vitality” of the rule announced in Allen v. City and County of Honolulu, 39 F.3d 936, 940 (9th Cir. 1994) [PLN, May 1995, p.14], held that “‘an inmate cannot be forced to sacrifice one constitutionally protected right solely because another is respected.’” The district court’s dismissal of Hebbe’s court access and Eighth Amendment claims was therefore reversed. See: Hebbe v. Pliler, 627 F.3d 338 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Hebbe v. Pliler