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Hillis v. Fletcher

United States District Court, D. Montana, Helena Division

April 18, 2018



          John Johnston United States Magistrate Judge

         This case comes before the Court on Petitioner Zachary Christopher Hillis's application for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. §2254, filed January 12, 2018. Hillis is a state prisoner proceeding pro se.

         I. Background

         Hillis was one of a group of petitioners that joined in filing what they characterized as an “en masse petition for writ of habeas corpus- 28 U.S.C. § 2254 as per Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” (Doc. 1). The “en masse” petitioners sought to challenge the constitutionality of the criminal charging process utilized against them by the State of Montana. Id. at 18-32. The group also attempted to file several motions as a group; each will be addressed in turn.

         Hillis, and the additional petitioners, were notified that the Court would not allow them to proceed as a group and that separate cases would be opened for each. (Doc. 6 at 2-3). Petitioners were then informed that each must respond individually and advise the Court of what steps had been undertaken to exhaust state court remedies. Id. at 3-5. Hillis did not respond to this Court's order.

         i. Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis

         Hillis has moved this Court to be granted in forma pauperis status. (Doc. 2). Because there is no reason to delay this matter further, Hillis's motion will be GRANTED.

         ii. Motion to Dismiss

         Hillis asks this Court to dismiss a Theft and Deceptive Practices convictions handed down in Montana's Sixteenth Judicial District Court, Custer County, in Cause No. DC-2015-18 and DC-15-102. (Doc. 3 at 1).[1] The argument is premised upon what Hillis believes to be a faulty and unconstitutional state criminal charging process. Id. at 1-12.[2] This Court is not able to provide Hillis the relief sought. Federal district courts, as courts of original jurisdiction, do not serve as appellate tribunals to review errors allegedly committed by state courts. MacKay v. Pfeil, 827 F.2d 540, 543 (9th Cir. 1987); see also Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 398 U.S. 281, 296 (1970)(“lower federal courts possess no power whatever to sit in direct review of state court decisions”). It would be entirely inappropriate for this Court to review and dismiss the state conviction as suggested by Hillis. The Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 3) is DENIED.

         iii. Motion for Copies

         Hillis has requested he be provided copies of all documents filed in this case. Although the Court will recognize Hillis's in forma pauperis status, this designation merely authorizes him to file an action without prepayment of the filing fee. See 28 U.S.C. §1915. But given the nature of the voluminous and duplicative filings in this case and in the companion cases of Podry et. al., CV-18-24-DLC-JTJ, Pet. (filed January 31, 2018); Bruinsma et. al., CV-18-21-DLC-TJT, Pet. (filed January 29, 2018); and, Hamilton et. al., CV-18-30-DLC-JTJ, Pet. (filed Feb. 20, 2018), the Court believes it is unnecessary and a poor use of judicial resources to provide Hillis with the requested documents and to impose the corresponding burden upon the Clerk of Court. Accordingly, Hillis's motion for copies (Doc. 4) will be DENIED.

         iv. Motion for Joint Action

         Hillis seeks to proceed in a group along with the ten other petitioners with whom he originally filed. As set forth above, the group was previously advised that each petition would be treated individually and as a separate filing. In the renewed “Joint Action to Stay Joined as One Action as per Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 20(a), ” see (Doc. 8), Hillis again seeks “en masse” filing status. The Motion will be denied.

         As set forth above, the Court notes that three additional other groups of “en masse” petitioners have sought to proceed as a class and raise the same claim Hillis's initial group raised. All petitioners will be treated in the same manner, each must proceed individually.

         Rule 12 of the Rules Governing § 2254 Cases provides that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure may be applied in a habeas action “to the extent they are not inconsistent with any statutory provisions” or the § 2254 Rules. In order to qualify for federal habeas relief, a petitioner must meet certain prerequisites. State judicial remedies must be exhausted with respect to each claim raised. A petitioner generally may not proceed with claims that were defaulted in state court, but he might be able to excuse a default. He must comply with the federal statute of limitations, either by filing on time or by asserting entitlement to equitable tolling, or he must demonstrate that his untimeliness may be excused because he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted. The Court no longer has jurisdiction over some petitioners' claims, because they have already litigated one federal habeas petition to conclusion. Any new petition challenging their convictions is “second or successive” and must be pre-authorized by the Court of Appeals for filing in this Court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b); Burton v. Stewart, 549 U.S. 147, 149 (2007) (per curiam). All of these issues—exhaustion, default, timeliness, and second-or-successive filings—can only be adjudicated on an individual basis.

         Presumably, Hillis believes the Court may decide the constitutional issue first and then sort out their individual entitlements to relief. But courts generally do not pronounce on constitutional questions unless it is necessary to do so. Even in a federal habeas action, the doctrine of constitutional avoidance is generally followed to the extent of first ascertaining whether a petitioner meets the prerequisites for habeas relief and only deciding the constitutional question if a decision doing so will not amount to an advisory opinion. See, e.g., Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997) (stating that procedural issues should “ordinarily” be decided first).

         The law allows a court to deny a meritless claim without regard to the highly individualized issues of exhaustion, timeliness, and default. See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2); Lambrix, 520 U.S. at 525 (stating that “[j]udicial economy” might support prioritizing issues “easily resolvable against the habeas petitioner”). But deciding the merits immediately in this case would pose a significant fairness issue. Both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have ruled that potentially unwary pro se habeas petitioners must occasionally be warned or protected against 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)'s restriction on “second or successive” petitions. See, e.g., Castro v. United States,540 U.S. 375, 377 (2003) (requiring courts to warn a pro se litigant of intent to recharacterize a document as a habeas petition); Woods v. Carey,525 F.3d 886, 889-90 (9th Cir. 2008) (requiring courts to construe new petition as motion to amend any contemporaneously pending petition in order to avoid second or successive restrictions). Here, any ...

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