Renwick Mose v. State of SC, SCSCt, filed 8/16/17: Equitable Tolling of Statute of Limitations for Inmates Who Rely on Prison Mail System

An excellent and eminently fair outcome in this South Carolina Supreme Court case, especially given the total wreck that is the South Carolina Department of Corrections these days.  Mose tried to file his PCR application on-time; that is, before the one- year statute of limitations expired. As an inmate, he had to rely on the SCDC mail system.  For some reason, it took nearly a month for his application to make it to the Clerk of Court’s office in Williamsburg County.  The Attorney General’s Office, naturally, tried to have his PCR application dismissed because he missed the statute of limitations by THREE DAYS.  The PCR judge dismissed the PCR application as untimely.

It’s important to note that in South Carolina, “mailing” does not constitute “filing” for purposes of the SOL in PCR matters.  Gary v. State, 347 S.C. 627, 629, 557 S.E.2d 662, 663 (2001).  It is “filed” when it is delivered to and received by the Clerk of Court.  Id. However, the United States Supreme Court has imposed the “Prison Mailbox Rule.”  Under that rule, a notice is filed at the time a petitioner delivers a habeas petition to prison authorities for mailing.  The justification for this rule is that it respects the equal treatment for inmates who should not be adversely impacted due to their status as inmates.  In Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1968), the Supreme Court sympathized with the inmates’ lack of choice in submitting court documents and their inability to monitor the process of the mail.  Id. at 271.   In this case, the Court considered that rationale and have concluded that the unique conditions of incarceration require a holding that the statute of limitations should be tolled if the circumstances warrant.

To receive the benefit of equitable tolling, however, an inmate must substantiate that the correct and complete application was delivered to prison authorities prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations and that any delay in the Clerk of Court’s receipt of the application was due to processing.  If the PCR judge finds that the applicant has presented a valid defense, then the statute shall be tolled until the application is delivered to and received by the Clerk of Court.  If an applicant raises the doctrine of equitable tolling, then the judge should make the fact-specific determination of whether it is justified.

Based on the record in this case, the Court reversed the dismissal of the application and remanded it back so the judge can review the inmate’s claims on the merits.  Excellent outcome that respects the Court’s philosophy that inmates should have one full bite at the post-conviction apple.  Gamble v. State, 298 S.C. 176, 178, 379 S.E.2d 118, 119 (1989).