When is a prisoner not a prisoner? Well, when he finishes his sentence, of course; one can only wonder at any attorney who would ask such a silly question . . .

Except that it’s not so silly after all. Several states, including South Carolina and Virginia, have enacted Sexually Violent Predator laws, which authorize the government to hold on to felons who are about to be released, so a hearing can be held on whether the soon-to-be-ex-prisoner should be held for treatment, even after his release date. If the government proves that the prisoner is a sexual predator and needs treatment, he can be held after his prison term is complete.

One such prisoner, in South Carolina, didn’t like what was happening while he was in the big house. He filed two civil rights suits in US District Court, alleging that he had suffered damages as a result of his conviction/incarceration, and that the prison had an inadequate law library. The district court conducted an initial review of the pleadings under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and concluded that they failed to state claims for which relief could be granted. It thus dismissed the suits, without even requiring the defendants to plead to it.

But wait a minute, the plaintiff objected; the PLRA applies to suits filed by prisoners, and I’m not a prisoner. I’ve served my time, and I’m now being held on civil, not criminal, process. It turns out he’s right, the Fourth Circuit rules today. The court finds that the plaintiff was not, as of the date of his filing suit, being held as “the result of the violation of a criminal law, or of the terms of parole, probation, or a pretrial diversionary program,” so he’s not a “prisoner,” as defined in the Act.

Alas, the inquiry doesn’t end there; there is another set of laws, dealing with in forma pauperis civil filings, that also authorizes an initial review of pleadings for likely merit. And under that analysis, the suits clearly do not state claims for which relief can be granted. The conviction/incarceration claims fall victim to the Heck v. Humphrey doctrine (a civil suit can’t be filed to redress a conviction unless the conviction has been vacated or reversed), while the pleadings didn’t state a sufficient claim relating to the law library. The prisoner– er, erstwhile plaintiff thus gets a symbolic victory, but no legal relief.

The decision, handed down January 18, is Michau v. Charleston County.