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Sixth Circuit: Prisoner Must be Allowed Direct Appeal When Prison Delayed Appeal Mailings

by Matt Clarke

The Sixth Circuit held that Michigan had to allow the appeal of a prisoner’s criminal conviction when prison officials had delayed the mailing of his appeal documents until after the filing deadline had expired.

Following his criminal conviction in state court, John Andrew Dorn, a Michigan prisoner, refused appointed appellant counsel and told the trial judge that he would retain appellate counsel himself. Having not yet secured an attorney and being responsible for filing his claim of appeal, Dorn requested disbursement of the filing fee from his prison account on June 11, 1998.

On June 15, 1998, he gave the same prison official his claim of appeal, to be notarized and mailed with the disbursement. The filing deadline was June 22; however, the prison official waited until June 23, 1998 to mail the documents. Consequently, the state appellate court dismissed Dorn’s claim for lack of jurisdiction due to the late filing of his appeal.

Dorn filed a motion to reconsider or reinstate, explaining the facts to the court of appeals.
His motion was summarily denied “for lack of merit in the grounds presented.” He appealed that decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, but his application for leave to appeal was denied because the state Supreme Court “was not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed.”

Dorn filed for state post-conviction relief. His petition was denied with the notation that he was “rearguing issues that were brought in his various motions and applications for leave to appeal.” Dorn’s motion for leave to appeal the post-conviction decision was denied because it “fail[ed] to meet the burden of establishing entitlement to relief under [Michigan Court Rule] 6.508(D).” The Michigan Supreme Court also declined to hear Dorn’s appeal.

Dorn then filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The court denied his petition, but certified an appeal as to whether he was denied an appeal of right.

The Sixth Circuit appointed Columbus, Ohio attorney Gene Crawford to represent Dorn.
The Court of Appeals reviewed the case de novo, finding that there had been no adjudication of Dorn’s claims on the merits in state court.

The Sixth Circuit noted that U.S. Supreme Court precedent placed on prison officials “an affirmative obligation to assure all prisoners meaningful access to the courts,” and relief had been granted when a prison’s ban on sending papers from the facility resulted in the dismissal of a prisoner’s appeal of right. See: Dowd v. United States ex rel. Cook, 340 U.S. 206, 208 (1951).

Finding that Dorn had given prison officials a reasonable amount of time to mail his appeal documents prior to the filing deadline, the Sixth Circuit found that the prison official’s actions amounted to a complete denial of Dorn’s right to appeal in violation of his constitutional right of access to the courts.

The Court of Appeals held that the “denial of the entire judicial proceeding itself, which a defendant wanted at the time and to which he had a right, ... demands a presumption of prejudice.” Further, Dorn had shown actual prejudice because his subsequently-filed appellate and post-conviction motions “contained additional hurdles that a prisoner must jump [through] before receiving consideration of his claims” that were not present in a direct appeal of right.

Therefore, the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to enter an order giving Michigan officials a reasonable time to provide Dorn his direct appeal, “failing which he shall be discharged” from custody. See: Dorn v. Lafler, 601 F.3d 439 (6th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Dorn v. Lafler