Thursday, September 20, 2012

The PLRA strikes again

In 1995, Congress made it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a prisoner that seeks in forma pauperis status cannot do so if he filed three frivolous lawsuits in the past. This case asks when is someone a "prisoner" under the PLRA.

The case is Gibson v. City of York, decided on August 14. Gibson sought in forma pauperis status because he could not afford to file his lawsuit, which alleged that officials at Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Facility violated his civil rights. If Gibson was a "prisoner" while at Kirby, he cannot file that lawsuit without paying the filing fee. Was he a prisoner? When we think of prisoners, we think of guys in the slammer, in lockup, in the big house, behind bars, in the joint, etc. What about a psychiatric facility where the plaintiff was sent after he allegedly committed a crime, to see if he could get treatment that would allow him to stand trial?

The Court of Appeals (Walker, Leval and Pooler) notes that "Under New York law, 'when a defendant is in the custody of the commissioner [of mental health] pursuant to a temporary order of observation . . . , the criminal action pending against the defendant in the court that issued such order is suspended until the superintendent of the institution in which the defendant is confined determines that he is no longer an incapacitated person.'” When people like Gibson are in places like Kirby, they are still in custody, even if they are not in the hoosegow. The Second Circuit concludes:

Because New York law explicitly specifies that the criminal proceedings against a person, such as Gibson, who is being held in a mental health institution pursuant to a temporary order of observation, are merely suspended during his confinement and observation—and only terminate if the person is still being held at the time the temporary order expires or the criminal charges at issue are otherwise dropped—we have little trouble concluding that Gibson was still a “person . . . detained in [a] facility who is accused of . . . [a] violation[] of criminal law” at the time he filed his complaint, and thus was a “prisoner” under the PLRA.

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