Church v. Pierce et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION regarding Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (D.I. 1 ). Signed by Judge Richard G. Andrews on 8/10/2017. (nms)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
MICHAEL L. CHURCH,
Civil Action No. 16-314-RGA
DANA METZGER, Warden, and
ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE
STATE OF DELAWARE,
Michael L. Church. Pro se Petitioner.
Elizabeth R. McFarlan, Deputy Attorney General of the Delaware Department of Justice,
Wilmington, Delaware. Attorney for Respondents.
Warden Dana Metzger has replaced former Warden David Pierce. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d).
Petitioner Michael L. Church is an inmate in custody at the James T. Vaughn
Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. Petitioner filed an Application for a Writ of Habeas
Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 ("Petition"). (D.1. 1) The State filed an Answer in
opposition. (D.1. 8) For the reasons discussed, the Court will deny the Petition as barred by the
limitations period prescribed in 28 U.S.C. § 2244.
As set forth by the Delaware Supreme Court in Petitioner's second post-conviction
[Petitioner] was charged in a thirteen-count indictment with having committed
multiple sex offenses between August and December 2010. On September 20,
2011, [Petitioner] pled guilty to one count of Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child
and one count of Sexual Abuse of a Child in the First Degree. In exchange for the
guilty plea, the State agreed to dismiss eight counts of Sexual Abuse of a Child in
the First Degree and three counts of Sexual Abuse of a Child in the Second
Prior to sentencing, [Petitioner] filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea.
[Petitioner] claimed that his defense counsel was ineffective and that he felt
"threaten[ ed] and forced" into taking the plea. The Superior Court denied the
motion and later denied [Petitioner's] motion for reconsideration. The Superior
Court found that the guilty plea "was not the product of threat or misconduct by
defense counsel," and that the plea was "knowing, voluntary and intelligent." The
Superior Court determined that [Petitioner] pled guilty "because he is guilty and
he did not want to risk the consequences of the jury trial that would have begun
immediately, had he not pleaded guilty." On March 9, 2012, the Superior Court
sentenced [Petitioner] to a total of thirty-five years at Level V, suspended after
twenty-two years (seventeen years minimum mandatory), for Level IV work
release and probation. [Petitioner] did not file a direct appeal.
Church v. State, 131A.3d806 (Table), 2016 WL 47436, at *1 (Del. Jan. 4, 2016).
On May 22, 2012, while represented by counsel, Petitioner moved for a reduction of
sentence. (D.I. 11-14 at 5, Entry No. 29) The Superior Court denied the motion on June 28,
2012, and Petitioner did not appeal that decision. (D.I. 11-14 at 5, Entry No. 32)
On March 6, 2013, Petitioner filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief pursuant to
Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 ("Rule 61 motion"). (D.I. 11-14 at 5, Entry No. 35)
The Superior Court denied the Rule 61 motion on June 25, 2013. See State v. Church, 2013 WL
3422490 (Del. Super. Ct. June 25, 2013). Petitioner did not appeal that decision.
On September 9, 2013, Petitioner filed a motion for appointment of counsel in the
Delaware Superior Court, (D.I. 11-14 at 6), which the Superior Court denied on September 23,
2013 (D.I. 1-6 at 3). Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration of that decision on August 13,
2014, which the Superior Court denied on October 6, 2014. (D.I. 12-4 at 6, Entry No. 43)
Petitioner appealed, and the Delaware Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as interlocutory. See
Church v. State, 2015 WL 1243731 (Del. Mar. 17, 2015).
On June 4, 2015, Petitioner filed a second Rule 61 motion. (D.I. 12-4 at 8, Entry No. 51)
The Superior Court denied that motion as procedurally barred on August 18, 2015. (D.I. 12-4 at
8, Entry No. 54) The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed that judgment on January4, 2016, and
denied Petitioner's motion for rehearing en bane. See Church, 2016 WL 47436.
Petitioner filed the instant Petition in April, 2016, asserting the following grounds for
relief: ( 1) the sentencing court violated Petitioner's due process rights by relying on allegations
which lacked a minimum indicia of reliability and by providing Petitioner an insufficient
opportunity to rebut the allegations; (2) defense counsel provide ineffective assistance during the
plea process and sentencing; and (3) defense counsel's ineffectiveness rendered Petitioner's
guilty plea involuntary. The State filed an Answer asserting that the Petition should be denied as
time-barred or, alternatively, as procedurally barred.
ONE YEAR STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
AEDPA prescribes a one-year period oflimitations for the filing of habeas petitions by
state prisoners, which begins to run from the latest of:
(A) the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion
of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such
(B) the date on which the impediment to filing an application
created by State action in violation of the Constitution or laws of
the United States is removed, if the applicant was prevented from
filing by such State action;
(C) the date on which the constitutional right asserted was initially
recognized by the Supreme Court, ifthe right has been newly
recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively
applicable to cases on collateral review; or
(D) the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims
presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due
28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(l). AEDPA's limitations period is subject to statutory and equitable tolling.
See Holland v. Florida, 560 U.S. 631 (2010)(equitable tolling); 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2)(statutory
Petitioner does not assert any facts triggering the application of§ 2244(d)(l)(B), (C), or
(D). Consequently, the Court concludes that the one-year period oflimitations began to run
when Petitioner's conviction became final under§ 2244(d)(l)(A).
Pursuant to § 2244(d)(l )(A), if a state prisoner does not appeal a state court judgment, the
judgment of conviction becomes final, and the statute of limitations begins to run, upon "the
expiration of the time for seeking [direct] review." 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(l)(A); see Kapral v.
United States, 166 F.3d 565, 577 (3d Cir. 1999); Jones v. Morton, 195 F.3d 153, 158 (3d Cir.
1999). In this case, since Petitioner did not file a direct appeal, his conviction became final on
April 9, 2012 -the day on which the appeal period expired. Applying the one-year limitations
period to that date, Petitioner had until April 9, 2013 to timely file a habeas petition. See Wilson
v. Beard, 426 F.3d 653, 662-64 (3d Cir. 2005)(Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(a) applies to AEDPA's
limitations period); Phlipot v. Johnson, 2015 WL 1906127, at *3 n. 3 (D. Del. Apr. 27,
2015)(AEDPA's one-year limitations period is calculated according to the anniversary method,
i.e., the limitations period expires on the anniversary of the date it began to run). Petitioner,
however, did not file the instant Petition until April 25, 2016, 2 more than three years after that
deadline. Thus, the Petition is time-barred and should be dismissed, unless the limitations period
can be statutorily or equitably tolled. See Jones, 195 F.3d at 158. The Court will discuss each
doctrine in turn.
A. Statutory Tolling
Pursuant to§ 2244(d)(2), a properly filed state post-conviction motion tolls AEDPA's
limitations period during the time the motion is pending in the state courts, including any postconviction appeals, provided that the motion was filed and pending before the expiration of
AEDPA's limitations period. See Swartz v. Meyers, 204 F.3d 417, 420-24 (3d Cir. 2000). The
limitations period is also tolled for the time during which an appeal from a post-conviction
decision could be filed even if the appeal is not eventually filed. Id. at 424. However, the
Pursuant t_o the prisoner mailbox rule, the Court adopts April 25, 2016 as the filing date, because
that is the date on the Petition. See Longenette v. Krusing, 322 F.3d 758, 761 (3d Cir. 2003)(the
date on which a prisoner transmitted documents to prison authorities for mailing is to be
considered the actual filing date).
limitations period is not tolled during the ninety days a petitioner has to file a petition for a writ
of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court regarding a judgment denying a state postconviction motion. See Stokes v. Dist. Attorney ofPhiladelphia, 247 F.3d 539, 542 (3d Cir.
Here, when Petitioner filed his motion for reduction of sentence on May 22, 2012, fortytwo days of AEDPA's limitations period had already expired. The motion for reduction of
sentence tolled the limitations period through July 30, 2012, the day on which the appeal period
expired. 3 The limitations clock started to run on July 31, 2012, and ran 217 days until Petitioner
filed his Rule 61 motion on March 6, 2013. The Rule 61 motion tolled the limitations period
through July 26, 2013, which includes the thirty-day period Petitioner had to appeal the Superior
Court's denial of the Rule 61 motion. The limitations clock started to run on July 27, 2013, and
ran the remaining 106 days without interruption4 until the limitations period expired on
Since the thirty-day appeal period actually expired on Sunday, July 29, 2012, the filing deadline
extended through the end of Monday, July 30, 2012. See Del. Sup. Ct. R. 1 l(a).
The motion for appointment of counsel Petitioner filed in the Superior Court on September 9,
2013 does not statutorily toll the limitations period because it was not a properly filed motion for
post-conviction review. See Church, 2013 WL 5786176, at *1 (Petitioner "does not fit under the
modified" Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 (e)(1 ), and the motion for appointment of counsel
was not part of Petitioner's first Rule 61 proceeding.); Church, 2015 WL 1243731, at *1 ("The
Superior Court's order denying Church's motion for appointment of counsel is an
interlocutory order' that "is not appealable as a collateral order."). However, it appears that the
State views the motion for appointment of counsel as a motion that tolls the limitations period.
Even ifthe Court were to concur with the State's assumption, the statutory tolling resulting from
this motion would not render the instant Petition timely filed. As calculated by the State, the
motion for appointment of counsel would toll the limitations through October 29, 2013, the day
on which the thirty-day time period to appeal the Superior Court's September 23, 2013 denial of
the motion expired. From that date, the remaining 106 days of the limitations period would have
run without interruption until it expired on February 13, 2014.
November 11, 2013. 5 Petitioner's second Rule 61 motion, filed on June 4, 2015, has no statutory
tolling effect because it was filed after (indeed, well after) the expiration of AEDPA's limitations
period. Thus, even after the applicable statutory tolling, the Petition is time-barred, unless
equitable tolling applies.
B. Equitable Tolling
The one-year limitations period may be tolled for equitable reasons in rare circumstances
when the petitioner demonstrates "(1) that he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and (2) that
some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way and prevented timely filing." Holland, 560
U.S. at 649-50. With respect to the diligence inquiry, equitable tolling is not available where the
late filing is due to the petitioner's excusable neglect. See id. at 651-52. As for the extraordinary
circumstance requirement, "the relevant inquiry is not whether the circumstance alleged to be
extraordinary is unique to the petitioner, but how severe an obstacle it creates with respect to
meeting AEDPA's one-year deadline." Pabon v. Mahanoy, 654 F.3d 385, 401 (3d Cir. 2011).
Notably, an extraordinary circumstance will only warrant equitable tolling if there is "a causal
connection, or nexus, between the extraordinary circumstance and the petitioner's failure to
file a timely federal petition." Ross v. Varano, 712 F.3d 784, 803 (3d. Cir. 2013).
Petitioner does not assert, and the Court does not discern, that any extraordinary
circumstances prevented him from filing his Petition in a timely manner. To the extent
Petitioner's discussion of Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012) could be construed as an attempt
to trigger equitable tolling, it is unavailing. By its own terms, the Martinez decision provides a
petitioner with an opportunity to overcome a procedural default of an ineffective assistance of
AEDPA's limitations period actually expired on Saturday, November 9, 2013. Therefore,
Petitioner had until Monday, November 11, 2013 to file his Petition. See Fed. R. Civ. P.
trial counsel claim, but does not in any way impact a petitioner's obligation to comply with
AEDPA's limitations period. See Wilkinson v. Pierce, 2015 WL 366057, at *4 (D. Del. Jan. 26,
2015). Finally, to the extent Petitioner's late filing was due to a mistake or miscalculation of the
one-year filing period, such a mistake does not warrant equitably tolling the limitations period.
See Taylor v. Carroll, 2004 WL 1151552, at *5-6 (D. Del. May 14, 2004).
For all of these reasons, the Court concludes that the equitable tolling doctrine does not
apply in this case. Accordingly, the Court will deny the instant Petition as time-barred. 6
CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY
A district court issuing a final order denying a § 2254 petition must also decide whether
to issue a certificate of appealability. See 3d Cir. L.A.R. 22.2 (2011 ); 28 U .S.C. § 2253(c)(2).
When a district court denies a habeas petition on procedural grounds without reaching the
underlying constitutional claims, the court is not required to issue a certificate of appealability
unless the petitioner demonstrates that jurists of reason would find it debatable: ( 1) whether the
petition states a valid claim of the denial of a constitutional right; and (2) whether the court was
correct in its procedural ruling. See Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484 (2000).
The Court concludes that the instant Petition is time-barred, and reasonable jurists would
not find this conclusion to be debatable. Accordingly, the Court will not issue a certificate of
For the reasons discussed, the Court will deny the instant Petition as time-barred without
holding an evidentiary hearing. An appropriate Order will be entered.
Given its conclusion that the Petition is time-barred, the Court will not address the State's other
reasons for denying the Petition.
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