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Neal v. Prater

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

April 3, 2019

DAVID PRATER, District Attorney for the Seventh Judicial District of Oklahoma; and in his individual capacity, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, a state inmate proceeding through counsel, filed a Complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging Oklahoma's Post-Conviction DNA statute, (Compl.) [Doc. No. 1]. United States District Judge Scott L. Palk has referred the matter for proposed findings and recommendations consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and (C). For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the Court summarily dismiss the Complaint.

         I. Background and Plaintiff's Claims

          Plaintiff was convicted of various crimes in Oklahoma County District Court and he thereafter filed a motion for DNA testing under Okla. Stat. tit. 22, § 1373. See Compl. at 2-3. In relevant part, that statute allows a convicted defendant, who otherwise meets the requirements in § 1373.2(A), to petition for DNA testing of “any biological material secured in the investigation of prosecution” that was “not previously subjected to DNA testing.” Okla. Stat. tit. 22, § 1373.2(B)(1). After the motion is filed, the state district court holds a hearing and shall order DNA testing “only if the court finds:

1. A reasonable probability that the petitioner would not have been convicted if favorable results had been obtained through DNA testing at the time of the original prosecution;
2. The request for DNA testing is made to demonstrate the innocence of the convicted person and is not made to unreasonably delay the execution of the sentence or the administration of justice;
3. One or more of the items of evidence the convicted person seeks to have tested still exists;
4. The evidence to be tested was secured in relation to the challenged conviction and either was not previously subject to DNA testing or, if previously tested for DNA, the evidence can be subjected to additional DNA testing that will provide a reasonable likelihood of more probative results; and
5. The chain of custody of the evidence to be tested is sufficient to establish that the evidence has not been substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered in any material respect or, if the chain of custody does not establish the integrity of the evidence, the testing itself has the potential to establish the integrity of the evidence. For purposes of this act, evidence that has been in the custody of law enforcement, other government officials or a public or private hospital shall be presumed to satisfy the chain-of-custody requirement of this subsection absent specific evidence of material tampering, replacement or alteration.

Id., § 1373.4(A)(1)-(5).

         Relevant here, Plaintiff requested officials collect biological material from a Samsung cell phone (already in evidence) and test it for DNA. See Compl. at 6 & Attach. 1 at 2. The state district court found Plaintiff was eligible to petition for such testing under § 1373.2(A). However, the court ultimately denied Plaintiff's request because: (1) no “biological material” had ever been collected from the cell phone; (2) he failed to establish a reasonable probability that he would not have been convicted if DNA testing had been completed at the time of trial; and, (3) he failed to show that the chain of custody for the cell phone was sufficient to establish that the evidence had not been altered in any material respect. Compl. at 6, & Attach. 1 at 2-3. As to the last finding, the court noted “[i]t is undisputed by the parties that the phone has been handled by members of law enforcement with bare hands since it was originally collected from the victim's car in February 2013.” Id., Attach. 1 at 2-3. Plaintiff appealed and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. See Id. at 3 & Attach. 2.

         II. Screening

         Because Plaintiff has sued a government official, the Court has a duty to screen the Complaint and dismiss any portion that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a)-(b). Additionally, “federal courts unquestionably ‘have an independent obligation to determine whether . . . jurisdiction exists, even in the absence of a challenge from any party.'” Havens v. Colorado Dep't of Corr., 897 F.3d 1250, 1260 (10th Cir. 2018). “‘To invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, a litigant must have suffered, or be threatened with, an actual injury traceable to the defendant and likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.'” Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. 165, 172 (2013) (citation and internal brackets omitted).

         III. ...

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