Saturday, January 9, 2016

No Disagreement Here

In re Bruyette, 2016 VT 3

By Andrew Delaney

If this decision were a tweet on Twitter, it’d be: “SCOV adopts the ‘prison-mailbox rule’ 'cause nobody disagrees. #unanimity.” And you’d still have 66 characters for extra hashtags (or as I knew ‘em growing up, the number/pound symbol).

Mr. Bruyette’s appeal was dismissed because he didn’t get his notice of appeal filed in time and he filed a motion to reconsider. He asks the SCOV to adopt the so-called “prison mailbox rule,” which more or less says that a notice of appeal is filed when an unrepresented inmate hands it to prison authorities for filing with the clerk. The SCOV obliges.

During the events leading to this appeal, Mr. Bruyette was serving a long sentence in Kentucky based on 1989 convictions. He filed a couple motions: (1) a motion to vacate or correct his sentence in the Rutland Criminal Division on the basis that Rutland lacked jurisdiction to sentence him because his trial was in Windham County; and (2) an identical motion in the Windham Criminal Division to vacate or correct an illegal sentence. Windham kicked it over to Rutland.

First, Rutland dealt with the jurisdictional motion filed with it, reasoning that the district court (now known as Superior Court, Criminal Division) was a court of statewide jurisdiction. Rutland denied Mr. Bruyette’s two motions to reconsider and he didn’t appeal. The originally-filed-in-Windham motion got docketed as a civil post-conviction-relief case (for whatever reason), and was dismissed several months later on the basis that the question was decided by the statewide-jurisdiction opinion. I really hope I didn’t make that sound more complicated than it needs to be. Two motions filed in different courts, but both get decided by the same logic.

Mr. Bruyette sends a notice of appeal to the SCOV, which isn’t the right way to do it, but it gets screwed up (and this is just my inference) so often that there’s a special rule that says when it’s filed with the SCOV it’s “filed” that date where it’s supposed to be filed. Problem is, Mr. Bruyette’s notice made it to the SCOV a day after the deadline, and that’s one of those “Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200” deals. Miss the deadline to file that notice and the appeal is over before it begins.

The SCOV dismissed the appeal. Mr. Bruyette asked the SCOV to reconsider and adopt the “mailbox” rule referred to above. The SCOV asked the Attorney General and the Defender General for their respective positions. The AG said the rule itself was fine, but Mr. Bruyette’s appeal should be tossed for other reasons. The DG said the rule is a good thing.

While the SCOV has never dealt with this particular issue, the SCOTUS has. The applicable rule of appellate procedure—nearly identical under both state and federal law—requires that a notice of appeal be filed within 30 days of the decision to-be-appealed from with the trial court clerk.

In considering the question of when an appeal is “filed,” the SCOTUS reasoned that an unrepresented prisoner has no choice but to rely on the sometimes-unreliable prison-mail system. The prisoner doesn’t have the option to go down to the courthouse and get that notice date-stamped; he or she is at the mercy of the mail. Accordingly, under federal law, a notice of appeal is “filed” when a pro se prisoner hands it to prison authorities for mailing.

The SCOV finds this reasoning persuasive. The SCOV also notes that a whole bunch of other states have dealt with the issue in a similar manner. And so the SCOV adopts the “prison mailbox rule” but leaves it to the civil rules committee to draft appropriate language and throws out a don’t-forget-electronic-filing reminder to the committee.

On whether remand is necessary under the facts of this case, the SCOV notes that Mr. Bruyette’s appeal had to have been timely filed under the “prison mailbox rule” because the SCOV got the appeal on a Monday and Mr. Bruyette’s appeal was due the immediately preceding Friday. Because the earliest the notice could have been mailed would’ve been that Friday, there’s no need for the trial court to sort it out. Mr. Bruyette’s appeal is reinstated.

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