Thursday, June 8, 2006
Inmate Who Lacked Spanish Legal Materials Given New Hope of Freedom
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A Spanish-speaking prisoner who filed an untimely habeas corpus petition may be entitled to equitable tolling of the one-year limitations period because he was unable to comprehend English and the prison law library lacked Spanish-language materials, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A divided panel reversed U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney’s 2004 ruling dismissing prisoner Carlos Mendoza’s petition for writ of habeas corpus.
After his conviction for assault with a firearm became final in August of 2001, Mendoza, a Solano State Prison inmate, filed the first of several state habeas petitions in May of 2003.
Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a petitioner must file his habeas petition within one year from the date when the petitioner’s judgment of conviction became final. Absent equitable or statutory tolling, courts will deny an untimely petition..
All of Mendoza’s time-barred state petitions were denied, and when in April of 2004 he filed a federal habeas petition, the court ordered him to show cause why his petition should not be dismissed as untimely.
In response, Mendoza filed a declaration saying he was unable to obtain legal information about the filing deadline because the prison law library did not have Spanish books, Spanish-English legal dictionaries, or Spanish-speaking clerks or librarians. He claimed he had requested Spanish-language legal materials when first incarcerated, but was told to wait and then never given them.
It was only with the assistance of bilingual inmates who arrived at the prison after his petition became time-barred, he said, that he learned of the limitations period. Mendoza filed 47 form declarations by fellow Spanish-speaking inmates supporting his factual claims.
Adopting a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, Carney concluded that “general lack of legal knowledge, indigenc[e], and limited English skills are not external factors or extraordinary circumstances beyond his control that made it impossible for him to file a timely petition.”
Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima, writing for the Ninth Circuit and joined by Judge Raymond C. Fisher, disagreed.
“Because Mendoza alleged that he lacks English language ability, was denied access to Spanish-language legal materials, and could not procure the assistance of a translator during the running of the AEDPA limitations period, he has alleged facts that, if true, may entitle him to equitable tolling,” Tashima wrote.
He explained that the issue, of first impression in the Ninth Circuit, was whether the inability of a habeas petitioner to obtain Spanish-language materials or procure translation assistance could constitute an “extraordinary circumstance” permitting equitable tolling of AEDPA’s one-year limitations period.
The rule, Tashima concluded, is that “a non-English-speaking petitioner seeking equitable tolling must, at a minimum, demonstrate that during the running of the AEDPA time limitation, he was unable, despite diligent efforts, to procure either legal materials in his own language or translation assistance from an inmate, library personnel, or other source.”
Because the facts Mendoza alleged “could constitute extraordinary circumstances,” the case must be remanded to the district court for an evidentiary hearing, the judge said.
Dissenting, Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld noted that Mendoza was born in the U.S. and although he claimed his parents were Spanish-speaking and he could not read English, he never showed that he could have comprehended Spanish language legal materials had they been available.
“We are evidently imposing an evidentiary hearing on this old conviction on the theory that one somehow becomes literate in an ancestral language by osmosis and no declaration asserting this literacy is required,” Kleinfeld wrote. “Were that so, there would be a lot of subscriptions to Der Spiegel, Le Monde, the Yiddish edition of The Forward, and all sorts of other foreign language newspapers and magazines in the United States.”
He also said it was “hard to believe” that there were no bilingual prisoners whom Mendoza could enlist for help before the statute had run on his claim. The declarations Mendoza filed with the district court were in English, he noted, and many of the 47 inmates who wrote them were at the prison before Mendoza’s claim became time-barred.
“There is a real problem, and also a fake one, underlying this case,” the jurist wrote. “The real problem is that because inmates are not entitled to appointed counsel for habeas petitions, they have little hope of understanding the myriad subtleties and intricacies of habeas law. It is a subject that challenges the most capable lawyers and judges. The fake problem is the lack of a Spanish-language library in Solano State Prison, where Mendoza has been.”
Mendoza was represented on appeal by Rolling Hills Estates attorney Stephen M. Lathrop. Deputy Attorney General Keith H. Borjon argued for the prosecution.
The case is Mendoza v. Carey, 04-56733.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company