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Federal Dismissals Not In Forma Pauperis Strikes in Arkansas

On May 5, 2016, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the revocation of a prisoner’s in forma pauperis status, finding that dismissed federal court actions could not be counted as strikes under state law.

Arkansas Code Annotated (ACA) § 16-68-607 prohibits an in forma pauperis state court action by a prisoner if he or she has brought three or more previous actions that were frivolous, malicious or failed to state a claim.

Arkansas prisoner Jessie Hill requested that Richard H. Gallagher, custodian of records for the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, disclose records from his criminal case pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Gallagher denied the request because Hill was a state prisoner.

Hill then filed a circuit court action challenging Gallagher’s decision. He also filed a petition to proceed in forma pauperis,which the trial court granted on February 15, 2013. The court reversed its order several months later, however, finding that Hill was ineligible for in forma pauperis status because he had filed three previous frivolous civil actions.

The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed, noting that Hill was not a party to one of the cases cited by the trial court. See: Hill v. State, 2015 Ark. 19 (Ark. 2015). Hill’s in forma pauperis status was reinstated on remand but Gallagher moved to revoke that status, arguing Hill had also filed three federal lawsuits that should be counted as strikes under ACA § 16-68-607. The trial court agreed, revoked Hill’s in forma pauperis status and dismissed the case without prejudice.

The Arkansas Supreme Court again reversed, holding that only cases filed in statecourts may be counted as strikes under ACA § 16-68-607.

One judge concurred, explaining that Gallagher’s decision to deny Hill the records to which he had a clear right violated the Court’s holding in Davis v. Deen,2014 Ark. 313, 437 SW.3d 694 (Ark. 2014). The majority agreed in a footnote, but noted that the appeal involved only the revocation of Hill’s in forma pauperis status. See: Hill v. Gallagher,2016 Ark. 198, 491 S.W.3d 458 (Ark. 2016).

Not content with his victory, Hill then filed a motion for reconsideration, which the state Supreme Court treated as a petition for writ of mandamus and granted on June 9, 2016.

The Court found that “Hill has filed multiple requests pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the State Crime Laboratory seeking copies of all evidence kept, obtained, or retained by the laboratory related to his criminal cases.” Based upon the plain language of the FOIA statute, the lab was required to disclose all evidence in a defendant’s case to the defendant or his or her attorney.

“Despite the clear, nondiscretionary language of the statute, the State Crime Lab has denied Hill access to his records for over six years,” the Supreme Court wrote. “Because the State Crime Laboratory has indicated that it will not perform its duty to provide Hill with the records he seeks from his own cases, we grant Hill’s request and issue a writ of mandamus to the State Crime Laboratory to provide Hill with the evidence he seeks forthwith.” See: Hill v. Gallagher, 2016 Ark. 257 (Ark. 2016).