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Eighth Circuit: Improperly Filed Habeas Petitions Should Be Converted to Bivens Action

On December 17, 2014, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals revived a case brought by a state prisoner who alleged in a habeas corpus petition that his Eighth Amendment rights had been violated by a prison guard. A federal court judge in an Arkansas district court had dismissed the case without prejudice when it held relief was unavailable in a habeas petition. The Eighth Circuit, however, found that as a pro se litigant, the prisoner should have been given the chance to amend his filing.

While a prisoner at the Federal Correctional Institution in Forest City, Arkansas, Addones Spencer alleged that he was assaulted by Lt. Mark A. Sheldon, and then left without food or water for days. According to Spencer's petition, Spencer was put in a medical assessment cell when Sheldon and another guard entered his cell to check his restraints. Spencer backed into a corner, became verbally abusive, and refused to cooperate. When Spencer was forcibly put on his bunk, he punched Sheldon in the stomach. He was then placed in four-point restraints. Prison officials claim Spencer was in four-point restraints for just over 24 hours, but Spencer said he was restrained "3 to 4 days without food or water," and that he defecated on himself and was made to lie in his own waste.

Spencer brought a petition for habeas corpus alleging both First and Eighth Amendment violations for being put in four-point restraints and for being disciplined without due process. Spencer alleged that being forced into four-point restraints for such an extended period of time constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and that disciplinary hearings officer Anthony Haynes violated his hearing rights.

The district court never reached the merits of Spencer's claims, instead dismissing the petition by concluding that condition-of-confinement claims may not be raised in a habeas petition.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that Spencer should have been given the opportunity to pursue his claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) (a "Bivens" suit).

A petition for "habeas corpus is not available to prisoners complaining only of mistreatment," the Eighth Circuit held. However, a pro se litigant's filing must be liberally construed, and the appropriate avenue for the district court to have taken "would be to recharacterize Spencer's claim into the correct procedural vehicle for the claim asserted."

Adhering to precedent from the United States Supreme Court, "the district court should have treated this case as a Bivens action as opposed to dismissing the case without prejudice," the appellate court wrote.

The court concluded by instructing the district court to give Spencer the option of converting his claim into a Bivens action, "considering the potential detriment to habeas petitioners if district courts, sua sponte, transformed their habeas petitions in to Bivens or § 1983 claims." See: Haynes v. Spencer, No. 13-3460 (8th Cir. 2014).