Sunday, March 31, 2013

As I Lay Petitioning

In re Chandler, 2013 VT 10

Today’s case is like that little house at the end of the lane.  It is a simple and straightforward affair that like any other ghost story becomes less and less about the surface and more and more about the past that continues to lurk below.  As Faulkner said, the past is never dead.  It's not even past.

In 2006, Petitioner got into an argument with firefighters who were on his property, and he was charged with impeding a public officer—a felony under Vermont law.  Following a three-day trial, a jury convicted Petitioner, and the court sentenced him to 30 days in jail—not exactly your stiffest sentence, but more about that latter. 

Petitioner appealed to the SCOV and sought to stay his sentence.  This last part was essential—after all if the sentence was not stayed, then his punishment would have been over before the SCOV could even receive all of the briefs.  While the trial court denied this motion, the SCOV, perhaps more sensibly, granted the motion but ultimately upheld the conviction. 

As soon as he began his sentence, Petitioner filed a motion for Post-Conviction Relief (PCR).  This is a mechanism under state law that allows Defendants to challenge their underlying convictions on procedural and constitutional grounds in a separate, civil action.  Typically, PCRs revolve around ineffective assistance of counsel arguments or procedural defects (unknowingly waiving rights at a trial or plea agreement).  The point of PCR is akin to habeas corpus in the federal system, it is a check on the system itself. 

In a PCR action, you cannot argue “I was innocent.  There was a one-armed man who did it and fled the scene.”  But you can argue, “My lawyer had no experience in criminal trials and was an undiagnosed narcoleptic who slept through the State’s case.”

The problem is that the relief in a PCR action usually means vacating the underlying conviction and a ordering a re-trial.  For Petitioner that would appear to be too little too late since his sentence, which was not stayed during the PCR, was finished before even the trial court ever got a chance to review it. 

In fact, the trial court, noting that the sentence was done, dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.  Petitioner had served his sentence whether it was the result of procedural defects or not no longer mattered.  The expiration of the sentence meant that the trial court could no longer grant relief or review over a sentence that was done.

Or so it would seem. 

On appeal, the SCOV is persuaded otherwise.  For the SCOV, this is not an issue of jurisdiction but mootness.  The two relevant questions are whether Petitioner was incarcerated at the time the petition was filed as required by statute (he was) and is there some relief to be granted by hearing the PCR (there is).  The first question is important because once a PCR is properly begun (filed by someone in state custody), jurisdiction is established.  The only question then is one of mootness: can relief still be given or is the case essentially over? 

This second point is important because while Petitioner has already served his sentence, he now has a felony on his record.  That means all kinds of collateral consequences from voting to owning a firearm.  Petitioner has a substantial interest in setting aside his conviction, not to gain back the 30 incarcerated days—those are gone—but to clear his record and avoid the collateral consequences that state and federal law attach to convicted felons. 

And this is what really moves the case away from the Petitioner’s particular circumstances.  The SCOV spends a great deal of time wrestling with the limits of this ruling and trying to make it fit along with its prior rulings and parallel federal habeas case law. 

As you might guess, premising a petitioner’s relief on the interest in vacating potential collateral consequences means that nearly every felon has an interest in relief.  How then do the courts weigh PCR petitions filed well after the underlying trial?  There is the limitation that the petitioner be incarcerated or in custody at the time the petition is filed, but what about petitioners who serve their sentence and are then re-arrested.  When they receive an enhanced sentence based on their prior convictions, can they file a PCR action against the older conviction?  They meet the elements.  They are in custody and the relief sought would vacate a not-so-potential collateral consequence. 

If this strikes you as improper and possibly unfair, you are not alone as the SCOV wrestles with this issue for the bulk of its lengthy opinion and concurrence.

The problem for the SCOV is In re Collette, an earlier decision that addressed the same facts that I just described.  Petitioner in that case sought to set aside a 12-year old conviction because it caused an elevated sentence for his succeeding conviction.  The SCOV denied the case as moot and ruled that the petitioner’s failure to seek a PCR earlier yielded review to the State’s interest in finality. 

But apart from the longer period of time between conviction and filing, there does not seem to be a lot of difference between the reasoning involved Collette and the present case.  The Concurrence focuses in on this and calls for the overruling of Collette as inherently anathema to the purpose and broad function of the PCR statute.

But for the majority, this is a matter of simply putting today’s case in its place.  The majority begins by defining the case narrowly.  The issue resolved in the case is simply whether a petitioner can maintain a PCR action when it is begun during the challenged conviction but is continued past the end of the sentence.  The answer is yes, if there are collateral consequences to relieve.  In contrast, the Majority notes that Collette was about a petitioner attacking a prior conviction while in custody for a subsequent crime. 

The majority is satisfied to let Collette stand on its own as a book end to the life-span of a PCR claim.  Along with its analysis of federal Habeas case law, the firmament of PCR filing is fairly fixed.  The time to bring a PCR is after a petitioner exhausts her direct appeals in criminal court but sometime before the claim becomes stale.  When that later date might be is left open by the majority, but it is no greater than the 12 years set by Collette

Since Petitioner filed his claim after his appeal was lost but before his sentence was over, he is entitled to PCR review so long as he entitled to relief.  And so the case goes back down to the trial court to hear the Petitioner’s claims out.

This leaves Justice Dooley, joined by Justice Robinson, to file a separate concurrence.   The Concurrence agrees with the outcome.  It even agrees with much of the Majority’s reasoning.  For the Concurrence, however, it is simply a matter of not going far enough.  The Concurrence notes that Collette was a much broader case and the Majority’s limited reading of the case is not accurate.  As described by the Concurrence, Collette is considered to have been a significant closing of PCR review and was drawn broadly to cut off PCR actions, such as today’s. 

The Concurrence applauds the majority’s decision.  It just wants more.  Of course the description and narrow interpretation given by the Majority would tend to limit Collette and that is in itself a form of overruling—at least that is what I would argue next time I had a questionably-timed PCR appeal before the SCOV. 

In the end, this is not good enough for the Concurrence, which wants to overrule Collette and leave it to the dust bin of history.  For the Concurrence, Collette does more harm than good and is at odds with prior case law and the intent of PCRs. 

At the same time, the Concurrence admits that the Majority’s position is more in line with other states and with federal Habeas Corpus law.  That said, the Concurrence believes we would all be better off with the broad availability of PCR relief, and the sustained ability of convicts to challenge any procedural defects in their underlying or previous convictions that have come back to haunt them.

So we end with a wistful look back to the era before Collette darkened the skies.  For Petitioner it is a unanimous send off from the SCOV.  Hopefully, history will not repeat itself, and his substantive PCR hearing will go better than his last remand.  

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