State v. Ochoa – 4/20/2010

April 27, 2010

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Prisoner Mailbox Rule” Cannot Apply To a Prisoner Who Has an Attorney and That Trial Court Lacks Discretion To Extend Time for Filing a Claim of Legal Ownership in State Forfeiture Action.

Ochoa is currently serving a sentence for his involvement in the distribution of methamphetamines.  The State seized property in connection with the crimes, alleging that the property had been used to facilitate the activity of a criminal enterprise.  Among the property seized was a parcel in Kingman of which Ochoa was the owner of record.  The State’s notice of forfeiture directed any person claiming a legal interest in the property to file a claim within thirty days.  Ochoa’s attorney filed a claim, claiming Ochoa had a 100% legal interest in the Kingman parcel.  Ochoa signed the claim on December 4, 2008, but his attorney filed it one day late on December 9, 2008.  Consequently, the State moved to strike Ochoa’s claim as untimely.  The trial court agreed, finding that the controlling statute, A.R.S. § 13-4311 required strict compliance with the thirty-day time limit.  Without the claim, Ochoa lacked standing to contest the forfeiture.  Ochoa appealed.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Court reviewed the requirements of A.R.S. § 13-4311 and concluded that the trial court had no discretion to allow Ochoa’s late claim.  In particular, A.R.S. § 13-4311(F) states that “[n]o extension of time may be granted.”  The Court also relied on precedent indicating that, although a trial court may allow a claimant to amend an already-filed claim, the court has no discretion to extend the time for filing the claim.

Ochoa argued that he handed the claim off to prison officials for mailing to the court within the time limit, urging the Court to apply the so-called “prison mailbox rule” identified in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 270 (1988).  Under that rule, a pro se prisoner’s notice of appeal is considered “filed” when it is delivered to prison authorities for delivery to court.  The Court explained that the rule applies exclusively to unrepresented prisoners, not those with attorneys.  Thus, because Ochoa had an attorney when the State sent the notice of forfeiture, he could not rely on the prisoner mailbox rule, a unique rule meant to mitigate the “special difficulties faced by pro se prisoners,” Rutledge v. United States, 230 F.3d 1041, 1051 (7th Cir. 2000).

Judge Weisberg authored the opinion; Judges Hall and Gemmill concurred.

PRACTICE NOTE:  Ochoa did not raise the “prison mailbox rule” issue below.  Although the Court could have deemed the issue waived, the Court exercised discretion to consider the issue because it was an issue of “statewide importance” and one that would “expedite enforcement of a right or redress an injustice.”