Lopez v. State, 61

Decision Date20 August 2013
Docket NumberNo. 61,61
PartiesJOSE F. LOPEZ v. STATE OF MARYLAND
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Jose F. Lopez v. State of Maryland
No. 61

Post-Conviction Proceedings - Limitations and Laches. Before 1995, the Post-Conviction Procedure Act provided that a petition collaterally attacking a conviction could be filed "at any time." The model law, on which the Maryland statute was based, deliberately included such language to make clear there was no limitations period for filing a post-conviction petition. After the Court of Special Appeals construed that language to preclude a court from dismissing a petition as untimely under the equitable doctrine of laches, the General Assembly amended the statute in 1995 to require that a petition be filed within 10 years after the imposition of sentence. In uncodified language the Legislature specifically provided that the period of limitations applied only to petitions concerning sentences imposed after the effective date of the Act - i.e., October 1, 1995 - and that the amendment should not be interpreted to have any effect on petitions concerning sentences imposed before that date. Neither the 10-year period of limitations nor laches applies to petitions relating to sentences imposed before October 1, 1995.

Barbera, C.J.

Harrell

Battaglia

Greene

Adkins

McDonald

*Bell

JJ.

Opinion by McDonald, J.

Harrell and Battaglia, JJ., dissent

*Bell, C.J., now retired, participated in the hearing and conference of this case while an active member of this Court; after being recalled pursuant to the Constitution, Article IV, Section 3A, he also participated in the decision and adoption of this opinion.

The equitable doctrine of laches bars litigation of a claim when there is unreasonable delay in its assertion and the delay results in prejudice to the opposing party.1 Laches derives from concerns similar to those that undergird statutes of limitations. Both devices - one a product of legislation, the other a development of the common law - are intended to set time limits on the assertion of claims. While their origin and operation as originally conceived were distinct, in modern times their operation has converged.2 This case concerns a convergence of the two in the context of a post-conviction proceeding.

Prior to 1995, the statute governing post-conviction proceedings allowed for the filing of a petition "at any time." That year, the General Assembly amended the statute to create a 10-year limitations period for post-conviction petitions. See Maryland Code, Criminal Procedure Article ("CP"), §7-103(b). In State v. Williamson, 408 Md. 269, 277, 969 A.2d 300, 305 (2009), this Court concluded that the 10-year limitations period did not apply to an individual sentenced before the effective date of the statute - October 1, 1995. The Court declined to consider whether such an individual could be barred from pursuing post-conviction remedies under the equitable doctrine of laches because the issue had not beenpreserved in that case. 408 Md. at 273 n. 4. That issue is now properly before the Court. In light of the language of the pre-1995 statute, its legislative history, and its contemporaneous construction by the Court of Special Appeals, we conclude that laches does not apply.

Background

On February 24, 1986, a jury in Montgomery County convicted Petitioner Jose F. Lopez of attempted first degree rape, attempted robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon, and burglary. On March 3, 1986, Mr. Lopez pled guilty to two counts of first degree rape, one count of second degree rape, three counts of burglary, and one count of assault with intent to rape. The offenses arose out of series of burglaries and rapes in the Silver Spring area during 1985 and 1986 involving five different victims, three of whom were elderly women. Mr. Lopez was sentenced to consecutive life sentences for two of the offenses and concurrent sentences on the other charges.3

On October 3, 2005, Mr. Lopez, unrepresented by counsel, filed a post-conviction petition covering both cases.4 In that petition, and an amended version of it filed six months later, he alleged, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel. The State responded to both the initial petition and its amendment, arguing that his claims were without merit andthat, in any event, he had waived the right to raise them. In late 2007, Mr. Lopez came to be represented by the Office of the Public Defender, which filed a supplement to his petition. On November 25, 2008, the State filed an answer in which it expanded upon its prior arguments and, for the first time, argued that Mr. Lopez's petition should be denied on the ground of laches.

On December 11, 2008, a hearing was held before the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. The Circuit Court held that laches was available to the State as a defense to a post-conviction petition, and it denied the petition on that basis.

Mr. Lopez appealed that decision to the Court of Special Appeals. The intermediate appellate court agreed with the Circuit Court that laches was applicable in post-conviction proceedings. Nonetheless, the Court of Special Appeals found that the record was insufficiently developed for a finding that laches barred the petition in this case. It therefore vacated the judgment and remanded the matter to the Circuit Court for reconsideration. This Court granted certiorari to review the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

Discussion

Whether laches is an affirmative defense to a post-conviction petition is a question of law. Accordingly, we consider that question without according special deference to the holding of the Circuit Court. State v. Adams, 406 Md. 240, 255, 958 A.2d 295 (2008).5

Post-Conviction Procedure Act

The Maryland Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act is codified at CP §7-101 et seq.6 In its current form, the Act contains a statute of limitations that provides that, in most cases, a post-conviction petition "may not be filed more than 10 years after the sentence was imposed." CP §7-103(b)(1). There is no dispute, however, that the 10-year period of limitations does not apply to Mr. Lopez's petition. To understand why, and to assess whether laches may apply instead, requires an excursion into the history of the statute.

1958 Post-Conviction Procedure Act - "at any time"

In 1958, the General Assembly adopted the 1955 version of the Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act. Chapter 44, Laws of Maryland 1958, then codified at Maryland Code, Article 27, §645A. The purpose of the Act was to consolidate various post-conviction remedies in a single statute; it was a procedural, not a substantive, reform. State v. D'Onofrio, 221 Md. 20, 29, 155 A.2d 643 (1959). The model act provided that a petition for relief under the act "may be filed at any time" - language that was included in the Maryland statute. Compare Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act (1955) §1, 9B Uniform Laws Annotated (1957), with Article 27, §645A(b) (1957, 1959 Supp.).7 Commentary to the modelact indicated that the absence of a time limit for filing was deliberate and that there was to be no period of limitations for filing a petition.8

A number of other jurisdictions have enacted statutes that allow for filing post-conviction petitions "at any time." Courts in several states have held that the absence of a period of limitations, coupled with that language, precludes the assertion of laches as adefense to a post-conviction petition.9 Courts in a couple states have construed that language to allow for a defense of laches.10

In Maryland, for many years, no appellate decision addressed the question whether the statute's authorization to file a petition "at any time" precluded a laches defense. The general understanding apparently was that laches was not available. In particular, during the 1980s, the Maryland Judicial Conference proposed a number of amendments to the Post-Conviction Procedure Act to correct perceived deficiencies in the statute. Among those proposals was an amendment that would have allowed dismissal of a petition on the basis of laches. See Statutory Text Proposed by Criminal Law and Procedure Committee of the Maryland Judicial Conference, Recommendation 6, reprinted in Tomlinson, Post-Conviction in Maryland: Past, Present, and Future, 45 Md. L. Rev. 927 (1986), Appendix A.11 Thatamendment was not adopted by the Legislature. The issue was soon addressed, however, by an appellate court - a decision that sparked a legislative response.

1991 - Creighton v. State - laches does not apply to petitions under the Act

In 1991, the Court of Special Appeals had occasion to construe the significance of "at any time" in relation to the doctrine of laches. In Creighton v. State, 87 Md. App. 736, 591 A.2d 561 (1991) (Wilner, C.J.), an inmate serving a life sentence for murder filed a post-conviction petition 26 years after his trial alleging ineffective assistance of counsel and various trial errors. The Circuit Court denied relief in part because of the long delay. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals opined that there was an element of fairness in such a ruling, but held that the Post-Conviction Procedure Act did not permit it. 87 Md. App. at 744. The court noted that, while the statute expressly limited the filing of petitions in some respects, it stated explicitly that "[a] petition for relief under this subtitle may be filed at any time" (emphasis added). In accordance with the longstanding approach to statutory construction,12 the court looked to the plain meaning of that language.13 The court observed that this language "would seem to negate any notion of claim preclusion - a disentitlement from proceeding at all under the Act because of delay. [Other provisions of the Act nowcodified in CP §7-106] focus more on the question of issue preclusion, to which laches is particularly relevant, and seem to negate that as well." Id. at 746.14 The Court contrasted the General Assembly's failure to express an intent...

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