The Prison Mailbox Rule: How to Send Mail in Jail

BACKGROUND

Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 outlines the time restrictions for filing a notice of appeal. However, the original rule was not very clear on how prisoners would file if they were already behind bars. Prisoners face unique challenges due to their confinement, as they cannot travel to the courthouse themselves to file paperwork. Further, they do not have access to the United States Postal Service to mail and track progress, so they must rely on the prison mail system instead. Specifically, pro se prisoners (representing themselves) are at a disadvantage when exercising their right to file a notice of appeal.

The Supreme Court grappled with this question in Houston v. Lack (1988), and answered by formulating the prison mailbox rule, stating that filings by pro se prisoners are complete when the prisoner delivers the notice to prison authorities for mailing. After the Houston case, Rule 4 was amended in 1993 to better incorporate the prison mailbox rule. Since then, different circuits have interpreted the prison mailbox rule and come to some starkly different conclusions.

THE ISSUE

In formulating the prison mailbox rule, the Houston Court specified the struggles of “pro se prisoner[s]” in filing paperwork. So, does this rule, where a prisoner’s notice of appeal is filed when he hands it to prison officials to be mailed, apply to all prisoners, including those represented by counsel (broad interpretation), or only to pro se prisoners (narrow interpretation)?

THE SPLIT

In February 2021, Cretacci v. Call came before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, challenging the scope of the prison mailbox rule. This case called for an interpretation of the rule posited by Houston. The Sixth Circuit joined the majority of its sister circuits (the Fifth, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits) by interpreting the prison mailbox rule narrowly and holding that it doesn’t apply to inmates already represented by counsel but instead only applies to pro se prisoners. In contrast, the Fourth and Seventh Circuits have applied the rule broadly to include inmates that are represented by counsel.

The Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits: Narrow Interpretation

In Cretacci v. Call (2021), Blake Cretacci was held as a pretrial detainee in the Coffee County, Tennessee prison system in 2016. Cretacci alleged that during his time in the system, he was the victim of numerous constitutional violations. Cretacci secured an attorney to file a complaint, but the attorney did not realize that they could not practice until the night before the statute of limitations lapsed. Therefore, the attorney could not represent Cretacci in the applicable jurisdiction, so Cretacci gave the prison authorities the paperwork that same evening pro se, following the prison mailbox rule, so that it could meet the statute of limitations. The court later received the filing, and the attorney was able to get admitted pro hac vice so that he could represent Cretacci during the proceeding. 

The court held that Cretacci’s claims of excessive force and failure to distribute supplies were time-barred since the statute of limitations had lapsed. Further, Cretacci could not use the prison mailbox rule since he did have representation at the time. The court went on to say that the pro se requirement of the prison mailbox rule applied in all civil cases. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that Houston should only apply to pro se prisoners due to their unique challenges in filing legal documents. The court explained that “if a prisoner does not need to use the prison mail system, and instead relies on counsel to file a pleading on his or her behalf, the prison is no longer responsible for any delays and the rationale of the prison mailbox rule does not apply.” The court ended its analysis by distinguishing the case at bar from the opposing circuits by stating that Appellate Rule 4(c) did not govern.  

The Eighth Circuit was one of the first circuits to address the prison mailbox rule in Burgs v. Johnson County (1996). In Burgs, an inmate filed a notice of appeal pro se while simultaneously requesting an appointment of counsel. First, the court appointed the same counsel that the inmate had during the lower court proceedings. Next, the court held that since the inmate had counsel at an earlier point in the case, the prison mailbox rule did not apply since the inmate could have reasonably relied on the attorney to file a timely notice of appeal. Specifically, the court said that the prison mailbox rule is limited to pro se prisoners only, since “the moment at which pro se prisoners necessarily lose control over and contact with their notices of appeal is at delivery to prison authorities, not receipt by the clerk.”

In 2002, the Fifth Circuit engaged with the prisoner mailbox rule in Cousin v. Lensing (2002). Cousin was a prisoner who attempted to file a notice of appeal after the time required, but the court refused to apply the prison mailbox rule to these filings since the prisoner did have an attorney when they filed the notice. The court reasoned that the mailbox rule only allows leniency in time for pro se prisoners since they face unique difficulties in filing pleadings. The court continued, saying that this rationale does not extend to represented prisoners since they do not need this leniency and do not face the same challenges.

The same year, the Tenth Circuit also encountered the prison mailbox rule in United States v. Rodriguez-Aguirre (2002). In this case, a prison argued that his counsel was ineffective and that this might impact the timing of his filing of appeals under the prison mailbox rule. However, the Tenth Circuit held that there was not enough proof that any ineffective assistance of counsel caused the failure to timely file. Therefore, the prison mailbox rule does not apply to represented prisoners. The court reasoned that the Houston rule served a narrow purpose: to acknowledge the delays caused by the prison mail system.

The Eleventh Circuit, through its per curiam decision in United States v. Camilo (2017), agreed with its sister circuits that the prison mailbox rule should be construed narrowly. In Camilo, a prisoner argued that the sentencing documents he had filed pro se should be subject to the prison mailbox rule even though he had representation at other stages of litigation.  The court stressed that the prison mailbox rule was designed to help prisoners who were strictly limited to communicating through the prison staff and postal service. Thus, represented prisoners have other means of communication.

The Fourth and Seventh Circuits: Broad Interpretation

The Fourth Circuit first encountered the prison mailbox rule in United States v. Moore (1994). In this case, a prisoner was represented by the federal public defender’s office and filed a notice of appeal. The inmate gave the paperwork to prison operators, but it arrived at the district court two days late, so the court dismissed the claim. The Fourth Circuit applied the prison mailbox rule to this situation. The court stated that the prison mailbox rule could not discriminate based on the representation status of prisoners.

The court noted that the prison mailbox rule was designed to correct disadvantages that prisoners have in filing documents due to restrictions on their freedom and did not offend any notion of fairness. The court went on to say that Houston should not be interpreted so narrowly as to exclude represented prisoners since there was “no good reason” to do so. The court noted that even though represented prisoners can rely on their counsel to file documents and act on their behalf, the court did recognize that prisoners might still face restrictions and limitations on how frequently they can see their attorneys.

The Seventh Circuit most recently answered the prison mailbox rule in 2004, in United States v. Craig (2004). Here, a prisoner stated that he had changed his mind while in jail and decided last minute to file an appeal. He then filed the notice pro se under the prison mailbox rule, as he did not think that he had counsel to represent him. The government challenged the prison’s change of heart as time-barred and further argued that the prison mailbox rule did not apply to represented prisoners anyway.

Although the court dismissed this specific case, they also explicitly disagreed with the government’s argument about the prison mailbox rule. The court reasoned that although Houston initially defined the rule, it had been codified through amendments to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4. The court turned to Rule 4(c)(1), observing that it “requires a prisoner to use a legal-mail system if the prison has one.” So, this rule governs, and the court couldn’t “pencil ‘unrepresented’ or any extra word into the text of Rule 4(c), which as written is neither incoherent nor absurd.”

LOOKING FORWARD

While Cretacci represents the most recent encounter with the prison mailbox rule, the issue is relatively common and reveals a lack of clarity in the law. This rule affects many defendants and the ease with which these defendants can file appeals, so it is important from both fairness and procedural standpoint that the rules are clear and equally applied. Therefore, it seems likely that the prison mailbox rule will continue to be challenged in the courts. It is unclear at this point whether Cretacci will appeal the Sixth Circuit’s decision, but the Supreme Court may eventually have to clarify the law, whether it be through case law or another amendment of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure to resolve this circuit split.