A Friday-morning shaking of my little fist against perceived injustice

Suppose, dear reader, you are in prison, convicted of murder. You believe you are innocent. You lost your direct appeal, so now you don’t get an appointed lawyer, you’re poor, and you have to prove your innocence by yourself, from prison. Good luck!

Then, a miracle. Another prisoner — call him McDougald — talked to your co-defendant, and your co-defendant admitted to McDougald that he committed the murder, not you, and that he lied at your trial in exchange for a lenient sentence for himself.  McDougald sent you a declaration laying out what your co-defendant admitted. Eureka!

Is McDougald telling the truth? Will the court believe him? Well, McDougald also gave you some corroboration. The co-defendant told McDougald that he left a fingerprint at the murder scene. McDougald also sent you the police forensic report, which the prosecution never turned over to you, confirming that they found the co-defendant’s fingerprints there.

You’re saved! But then, disaster.

Before you can file your blockbuster new evidence, you break a prison rule. As punishment, you’re going to be put in the Restricted Housing Unit. When the guards come to move you, they see that you have four boxes of legal materials, including McDougald’s declaration and the fingerprint report. You’re allowed to have four boxes of legal materials — but when you’re in the RHU, you’re only allowed to have one box.

And now it gets Kafkaesque: The guards tell you that since you have four boxes and RHU prisoners are only allowed to have one box, they’re going to seize all four boxes and destroy them. (Oh, and the cherry on top is they write you up again, for possession of contraband — your legal papers.)


Now you see why I’m an appellate blogger instead of a crime-story writer.


The foregoing facts are from Coulston v. Superintendent, a non-precedential per curiam opinion issued yesterday by the Third Circuit panel of Ambro, Shwartz, and Nygaard. After SCI Houtzdale guards seized prisoner Troy Coulston’s files, he filed a civil-rights suit alleging denial of his constitutional right of access to the courts. Prisons don’t get to destroy inmates’ legal papers every time they break a prison rule, right?

To win his access-to-the-courts claim, Coulston had to show that he lost a chance to pursue an underlying claim that was “nonfrivolous” or “arguable,” and that he has no other remedy. Sounds like Coulston, no? But, in his pro se complaint, the remedy Coulston sought was money damages, and the Third Circuit found this fatal to his claim:

Under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994), he cannot do so at this time. Heck holds that a damages remedy that necessarily implies the invalidity of a criminal conviction is impermissible while that conviction stands. Id. Coulston cannot demonstrate that the loss of his PCRA claim injured him unless he also demonstrates that his PCRA petition had merit, which necessarily would imply the invalidity of his murder conviction. [Cites to three 7th Circuit cases omitted.]

But wait. Does his access-to-the-courts claim “necessarily” imply the invalidity of his conviction? All Coulston has to show is that his underlying claim is “nonfrivolous,” not that it’s meritorious. Non-frivolousness doesn’t necessarily imply invalidity any more than probable cause would necessarily imply guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In other words, a finding that Coulston’s underlying claim is nonfrivolous plainly would not entitle him to release. Compare Heck, where the Court expressly relied on the lower court’s view that “if he won his case the state would be obliged to release him even if he hadn’t sought that relief.” That’s what “necessarily” means. Said Heck: “if the district court determines that the plaintiff’s action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed to proceed.” Hey, Coulston, that’s you.

And ohbytheway what a wacky Catch-22. You can sue the prison for taking away your ability to overturn your conviction, but only if you overturn your conviction first. How exquisite!

At an absolute minimum, given the apparent absence of controlling precedent on whether Heck bars access-to-courts claims for money damages, was this a question appropriate to decide in a non-precedential opinion? (Not just non-precedential, by the way, but also unsigned and issued one day after submission to the panel, without oral argument, and after denying the pro se litigant’s request for counsel despite “acknowledg[ing] the concerns Coulston expresses in his motion for counsel” because “we conclude he should nevertheless be capable of presenting his appeal.”)

Not in my book.

To its credit, the panel tries to soften the blow in a footnote, stressing that dismissals under Heck are without prejudice and explaining that prisoners may avoid dismissal under Heck by seeking injunctive relief instead of money damages.

Well, hooey. If the prison already destroyed Coulston’s files, what good will an injunction do him? And what non-moot injunctive relief would he even have standing to seek? If SCI Houtzdale really does have a policy of immediately destroying prisoners’ legal files, how could any prisoner bring a justiciable injunctive-relief claim? Besides, I see nothing in the opinion to discourage a district court from simply staying Coulston’s injunctive-relief-seeking action and then denying it once Coulston has failed to overturn his conviction.

The footnote also says prisoners alleging denial of access to the courts may ask the courts to extend the time for filing their habeas petitions, citing a district court case. But neither 28 USC 2244(d)(1)(B) nor the vanishingly narrow equitable tolling doctrine give me much confidence any prisoner will be able to benefit from this suggestion, either, even if you assume that more time always cures file destruction.

The footnote concludes, “Heck is thus an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one, to obtaining review of a conviction when a prisoner is denied access to the courts.” I wish I shared the panel’s optimism.

If I’m completely off my rocker here — wouldn’t be the first time — I’d sure be grateful to be set straight.