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California State Prisoner’s Habeas Case Gets to Supreme Court but Falls Short

Antonio Hinojosa, serving a 16-year sentence in California’s prison system, was deemed a “validated” gang member by prison officials, effectively stripping him of future good-time credits and extending the length of his sentence. He filed a pro se petition for habeas relief, was denied at the state court level and took his case to federal district court and eventually to the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in his favor.

Ultimately, however, in May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court found against Hinojosa on a procedural issue in a per curiam decision that was criticized by many observers.

According to the Court, “The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) requires a state prisoner seeking federal habeas relief first to ‘exhaus[t] the remedies available in the courts of the State.’ 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). If the state courts adjudicate the prisoner’s federal claim ‘on the merits...,’ then AEDPA mandates deferential, rather than de novo, review,” effectively preventing federal courts from exercising jurisdiction in most cases. The Ninth Circuit had determined that the state courts’ denial of Hinojosa’s habeas petition was not “on the merits.”

The Court of Appeals wrote, “In punishing Hinojosa for his in-prison gang-related misconduct, the state has effectively increased his prison sentence for his underlying crimes. And it has done so by means of a regulation that was enacted after [he] committed those crimes,” in violation of ex post facto laws. California’s state prison system is rampant with gang activity, with many prisoners forced to join gangs to protect themselves from violence by other prisoners.

Unfortunately the Supreme Court ignored this reality, finding that the California Supreme Court’s denial of Hinojosa’s habeas petition had been on the merits – which meant the AEDPA applied and the Ninth Circuit would not have ruled in his favor. In effect, the high court endorsed an ex post facto law used to keep people in a dangerous and overcrowded prison system already under federal court supervision. In a strongly-worded dissent, Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg referred to the majority’s argument as “flimsy.” See: Kernan v. Hinojosa, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 3051 (May 16, 2016).

According to Caleb Mason, a former federal prosecutor, “This is a terrible ruling to get from the Supreme Court. I guess it means litigants will have to find a way to get a case before the state supreme court.” Prison Legal News previously covered the effect of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in this case, which prison officials had refused to extend to other prisoners. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.30].

The only good news is that Hinojosa was released from prison prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

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Related legal case

Kernan v. Hinojosa