Garlotte v. Fordice,
515 U.S. 39 (1995)

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No. 94-6790. Argued April 24, 1995-Decided May 30,1995

A Mississippi trial court ordered that petitioner Garlotte serve, consecutively, a 3-year prison sentence on a marijuana conviction, followed by concurrent life sentences on two murder convictions. State law required Garlotte to serve at least 10 months on the first sentence and 10 years on the concurrent sentences. Garlotte unsuccessfully sought state postconviction collateral relief on the marijuana conviction. By the time those proceedings ended, he had completed the period of incarceration set for the marijuana offense, and had commenced serving the life sentences. The Federal District Court denied his subsequent federal habeas petition on the merits, but the Court of Appeals dismissed the petition for want of jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals adopted the State's position that Garlotte had already served out the prison time imposed for the marijuana conviction and, therefore, was no longer "in custody" under the conviction within the meaning of the federal habeas statute, 28 U. S. C. § 2254(a). The court rejected Garlotte's argument that he remained "in custody" because the marijuana conviction continued to postpone the date on which he would be eligible for parole.

Held: Garlotte was "in custody" under his marijuana conviction when he filed his federal habeas petition. Pp. 43-47.

(a) In Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U. S. 54, this Court allowed two prisoners incarcerated under consecutive sentences to apply for federal habeas relief from sentences they had not yet begun to serve. Viewing consecutive sentences in the aggregate, the Court held that a prisoner serving consecutive sentences is "in custody" under anyone of them for purposes of the habeas statute. A different construction of the statutory term "in custody" will not be adopted here simply because the sentence imposed under the challenged conviction lies in the past rather than in the future. Maleng v. Cook, 490 U. S. 488-in which the Court held that a habeas petitioner could not challenge a conviction after the sentence imposed for it had fully expired-does not control this case, for the habeas petitioner in Maleng, unlike Garlotte, was not serving consecutive sentences. Pp. 43-46.

(b) Allowing a habeas attack on a sentence nominally completed is unlikely to encourage delay in the assertion of habeas challenges. A


prisoner naturally prefers release sooner to release later, and delay is apt to disadvantage a petitioner-who has the burden of proof-more than the State. Moreover, under Habeas Corpus Rule 9(a), a district court may dismiss a habeas petition if the State has been prejudiced in its ability to respond because of inexcusable delay in the petition's filing. Pp.46-47.

29 F.3d 216, reversed and remanded.

GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and BREYER, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., joined, post, p. 47.

Brian D. Boyle, by appointment of the Court, 513 U. S. 1125, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were James R. Asperger and Matthew B. Pachman.

Marvin L. White, Jr., Assistant Attorney General of Mississippi, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Mike Moore, Attorney General, and Jo Anne M. McLeod and John L. Gadow, Special Assistant Attorneys General. *

JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

To petition a federal court for habeas corpus relief from a state-court conviction, the applicant must be "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U. S. C. § 2254(a); see also 28 U. S. C. § 2241(c)(3). In Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U. S. 54 (1968), we held that the governing federal prescription permits prisoners incarcerated under consecutive state-court sentences to apply for federal habeas relief from sentences they had not yet begun to serve. We said in Peyton that, for purposes of habeas relief, consecutive sentences should be treated as a continuous series; a prisoner is "in custody in violation of the

* Harold J. Krent filed a brief for the Post-Conviction Assistance Project of the University of Virginia et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

Kent S. Scheidegger filed a brief for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging affirmance.

Full Text of Opinion

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