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Oregon Interferes With Juvenile Offender Court Access

On December 9, 2013, an Oregon federal court held that a juvenile offender adequately alleged that he was injured when prison officials interfered with his right to appeal his convictions.

Oregon juvenile offenders are sentenced to Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) custody at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility (MacLaren). They are transferred to an Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) adult prison when they turn 25 years old. Juveniles may be sent to adult prison earlier, as discipline for violating MacLaren’s rules.

MacLaren operated a Secure Intensive Treatment Program (SITP) for juveniles who were tried and convicted as adults. “Each offender achieved a level commensurate with his behavior, progress and other factors,” which was identified by a color and number, (e.g., “’Green 50,’ for 50 weeks at the Green level).” Prisoners earn greater freedoms and amenities at each level.

SITP residents who engaged in “any type of legal proceeding, including appeals or collateral attacks on his conviction, could not progress beyond a relatively low level of ‘Green 25.’” They were also denied participation in SITP’s mandatory Violent Offender Group. Failing to complete the program may result in discipline or removal from SITP.

MacLaren prisoners did not have “any access to counsel, legal assistance, online (or other) legal research resources or legal materials.”

Seth Edwin Koch, 15, committed a homicide and was charged with multiple counts of Aggravated Murder and other offenses on April 9, 2001. Koch was too young for a death sentence, but he could be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole (LWOP).

Koch pleaded guilty to Aggravated Murder, robbery and several other offenses on August 2, 2002. He was sentenced to 90 months in prison on the robbery conviction on August 14, 2002, and transferred to MacLaren’s SITP. Sentencing was continued on the homicide convictions, to determine during a penalty phase if Koch should be sentenced to life with, or without, parole.

On July 30, 2003, Koch waived his constitutional right to a jury trial during the penalty phase. He was then sentenced to two consecutive LWOP sentences on August 14, 2003, and returned to SITP.

Under Oregon law, Koch had a statutory right to challenge his convictions on direct appeal, within 30 days of sentencing. He did not file a direct appeal.

Koch also had a statutory right to challenge his convictions by filing a collateral post-conviction relief (PCR) proceeding, within two years of sentencing. Koch also did not file a timely PCR action.

SITP staff threatened Koch and other prisoners with early transfer to adult prison if they insisted on appealing their convictions and sentences. Koch “did not pursue direct appeal or post-collateral attack on his sentences because of SITP policies that could result in punishment for doing so via removal from SITP and possible transfer to adult prison.”

Six years after all appellate remedies were time-barred, Koch was transferred to ODOC because he was no longer a minor.

Upon entering adult prison, on April 8, 2010, Koch first gained access to a law library and legal assistance. Within 90 days, a prison legal assistant helped him file an untimely PCR action on July 6, 2010.

PCR counsel was appointed and the State moved to dismiss the action as time-barred. That motion remains pending.

Given the State’s PCR position, Koch filed a federal civil rights action on April 9,2012, alleging that several named and “John Doe” MacLaren employees denied, and otherwise interfered with, his fundamental constitutional right to access the courts. He sought compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive and declaratory relief and attorney’s fees.

In the rarest of moves by Oregon’s federal bench, United States District Court Judge Anna J. Brown actively and persistently sought counsel for Koch. After numerous attorneys declined, Portland lawyer Jesse A. Merrithew took the case.

On September 4, 2013, Defendants moved to dismiss the federal action, arguing that Koch has not suffered “actual injury” because he was able to file a PCR action “in 2010, which is still pending in the state courts.”

Judge Brown disagreed. “Even if Plaintiff’s State PCR is not dismissed as untimely, which seems unlikely,” Judge Brown concluded that Koch “has adequately pled a claim for violation of his right to access to the courts because Plaintiff has alleged he did not file a direct appeal because MacLaren did not have any law library or legal assistance available.”

Citing Silva v. Di Vittorio, 658 F.3d 1090, 1101-02 (9th Cir. 2011), Judge Brown also found that Koch “adequately pled a claim for active interference with his access to the courts because Plaintiff alleges OYA policies ‘punished’ inmates who attempted to pursue their legal remedies by capping the achievement level of inmates who challenged their sentences to Green 25 and by threatening possible transfer to adult ODOC facilities.”

“Because of those policies and his fear of being transferred to ODOC custody, Plaintiff alleges he did not file a direct appeal or state PCR until his transfer to ODOC custody in July 2010, by which time his direct appeal was time-barred,” Brown found. Therefore, “those alleged policies are sufficient to constitute active interference with Plaintiffs access to courts.”

Citing Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30,56 (1983) and Dang v. Cross, 422 F.3d 800,809 (9lh Cir. 2005), Judge Brown granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss Koch’s punitive damages claim because he failed to allege that Defendants were “motivated by evil motive or intent,” “acted with reckless or callous indifference” or engaged in “oppressive conduct.” She granted him “leave to replead,” however, “if he has sufficient facts to support such a claim under the (Smith and Dang) standards.”

Brown dismissed Koch’s injunctive relief claims since he will never return to OYA custody, but she declined to dismiss his declaratory relief claims.  See: Koch v. Jester, USDC No. 6:12-cv-00613-BR (D. Or. 12/9/13).

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Related legal case

Koch v. Jester