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Hinton v. Pike County

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Western Division

February 9, 2018

HENRY HINTON, JR. PLAINTIFF
v.
PIKE COUNTY, ET AL. DEFENDANTS

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Michael T. Parker, United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER came before the Court for an evidentiary hearing on January 29, 2018, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b).[1] Plaintiff appeared pro se, and Honorable Wayne Dowdy appeared on behalf of Defendants Pike County, Sheriff Mark Sheppard, Glen Green, and Lieutenant Smith. Having heard the arguments of the parties and considered all the evidence, the undersigned finds that Plaintiff failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence the claims asserted against the Defendants. Accordingly, the undersigned recommends that this matter be dismissed.

         BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit arises from events which took place while Plaintiff was incarcerated at the Pike County Jail.[2] According to Plaintiff, he entered the jail on June 30, 2014, and was transferred to a Mississippi Department of Corrections facility on November 24, 2015. Plaintiff asserts three claims in this action: (1) a denial of access to court claim against Defendant Sheppard; (2) a conditions of his confinement claim against Defendants Sheppard, Green, and Smith; and (3) a failure to protect claim against Defendant Sheppard. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Defendants.

         ANALYSIS

         Denial of Access to Court Claim

         Plaintiff claims that he lost a forfeiture hearing in state court and missed his opportunity to appeal the forfeiture ruling because he did not have access to a law library or other legal assistance while housed in the Pike County Jail. At the evidentiary hearing, Plaintiff testified that that he was arrested on June 30, 2014, and at the time of his arrest, police officers seized $7, 746.00. Plaintiff testified that the money was discovered in a backpack along with marijuana.[3] Plaintiff testified that he was charged with intent to distribute controlled substances and the prosecution pressured him to enter a guilty plea. Plaintiff testified that he dismissed his first two public defenders because they recommended that he enter a guilty plea. On October 5, 2015, after Plaintiff was appointed a third public defendant, he entered an Alford plea.[4] Plaintiff submitted into evidence a transcript of his plea hearing. See Plaintiff's Exhibit L.

         Plaintiff testified that while he was in jail, he filed a claim in state court for the seized $7, 746.00 and, in November of 2015, attended a forfeiture hearing in state court. During the hearing, the money was ordered forfeited. Plaintiff submitted into evidence the state court's forfeiture order. See Plaintiff's Exhibit L. Plaintiff testified that, after the forfeiture order was entered, he wrote the clerk of court regarding an appeal, but by the time he received the clerk's response, his deadline to appeal the forfeiture order had passed. Plaintiff submitted into evidence his letter and the clerk's response. See Plaintiff's Exhibit L.

         Plaintiff testified that the Pike County Jail did not have a law library nor any legal aid officials. Plaintiff also testified that he requested that the jail administrator, Defendant Glen Green, provide him a copy of the rules of civil procedure. Defendant Green testified that he did not recall Plaintiff ever requesting a copy of the rules of civil procedure. Defendant Green, however, testified that the jail did not have a law library. According to Green, a law library was unnecessary because each of the inmates housed in the jail was represented by an attorney.

         Plaintiff testified that because he did not have access to a law library or other legal assistance, he lost at the forfeiture hearing and missed his opportunity to appeal the forfeiture ruling. According to Plaintiff, if he would have had access to a law library or legal assistance, he would have prevailed at the forfeiture hearing because the State wrongfully used his Alford plea, which was not an admission of guilt, to support the forfeiture. Plaintiff also asserts that, with access to a law library or legal assistance, he would have known how and when to appeal the forfeiture ruling.

         Prisoners possess a constitutional right of access to courts, including having the “ability . . . to prepare and transmit a necessary legal document to court.” Eason v. Thaler, 73 F.3d 1322, 1328 (5th Cir. 1996). The right of access to the courts is limited to allow prisoners opportunities to file nonfrivolous claims challenging their convictions or conditions of confinement. Jones v. Greninger, 188 F.3d 322, 325 (5th Cir. 1999). “Interference with a prisoner's right to access to the courts, such as delay, may result in a constitutional deprivation.” Chriceol v. Phillips, 169 F.3d 313, 317 (5th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

         However, “[a] denial-of-access-to-the-courts claim is not valid if a litigant's position is not prejudiced by the alleged violation.” Ruiz v. United States, 160 F.3d 273, 275 (5th Cir. 1998); Henthorn v. Swinson, 955 F.2d 351, 354 (5th Cir. 1992). It is only when a prisoner suffers some sort of actual prejudice or detriment from denial of access to the courts that the allegation becomes one of constitutional magnitude. Walker v. Navarro County Jail, 4 F.3d 410, 413 (5th Cir. 1993); Howland v. Kilquist, 833 F.2d 639, 642 (7th Cir. 1987). To prove his claim, a plaintiff must show real detriment-a true denial of access, such as the loss of a motion; the loss of a right to commence, prosecute, or appeal in a court; or substantial delay in obtaining a judicial determination in a proceeding. See Oaks v. Wainwright, 430 F.2d 241 (5th Cir. 1970).

         Mississippi Code Annotated § 41-29-179(2) provides as follows:

If the owner of the property has filed an answer denying that the property is subject to forfeiture, then the burden is on the petitioner to prove that the property is subject to forfeiture. However, if an answer has not been filed by the owner of the property, the petition for forfeiture may be introduced into evidence and is prima facie evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture. The standard of proof placed upon the petitioner in regard to property forfeited under the provisions of this article shall be by a preponderance of the evidence.

Miss. Code Ann. § 41-29-179(2).

         The burden of proof in a forfeiture action differs from that involved in a criminal trial. The government need not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a connection exists between the forfeited property and the illegal activity. Thus, a criminal conviction is not a prerequisite to a civil forfeiture. See State ex rel. Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics v. Lincoln County, 605 So.2d 802, 804 (Miss. 1992).

         Mississippi Code Annotated § 41-29-153 identifies property subject to forfeiture, including money. Section 41-29-153(7) provides that “[a]ll monies, coin and currency found in close proximity to forfeitable controlled substances . . . are presumed to be forfeitable under this paragraph; the burden of proof is upon claimants of the property to rebut this presumption.”

         The state court's forfeiture order states that the “Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics has put forth proof that property at issue is subject to forfeiture under the provisions of §§ 4[1]-29-153(a)(5) and 41-29-153(a)(7) of the Mississippi Code of 1972, as amended, having been used, or intended for use, in violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Law and having been found in close proximity to forfeitable controlled substances, to-wit: marijuana.” See Plaintiff's Exhibit L. During testimony before this Court, Plaintiff admitted that the $7, 746.00 was found in a backpack along with marijuana. Additionally, during Plaintiff's plea hearing, the state court asked Plaintiff the following: “Are you satisfied that if we brought a jury in here, and they heard the four charges, that there would be enough evidence that they might conclude that you were guilty of each of the charges?” Plaintiff responded “yes, sir.” See Plaintiff's Exhibit L.

         The state court also explained to Plaintiff that a police officer would testify that he saw Plaintiff throw two prescription bottles out of his vehicle, which contained a substantial quantity of hydrocodone obtained by fraudulent prescriptions. The state court explained that officers found twenty grams of marijuana and over five units of Alprazolam in Plaintiff's possession. The court also explained that records would ...


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