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Abrams v. Laughlin

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 18, 2018

ABRAMS
v.
LAUGHLIN et al.

          HINES, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         This Court granted prisoner Cardell Jerome Abrams's application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal the denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, posing the question of whether the habeas court correctly dismissed the petition for failure to file within the time allowed by OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (3).[1] For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the habeas court.

         On October 17, 2005, Abrams was convicted of four counts of kidnapping, as well as other crimes, pursuant to a guilty plea, and he did not seek direct review of any of his convictions. Acting pro se, [2] Abrams filed his habeas petition on May 10, 2016, alleging that his kidnapping convictions were not supported by sufficient evidence of asportation under Garza v. State, 284 Ga. 696 (670 S.E.2d 73) (2008).[3] On the State's motion, [4] the habeas court dismissed the petition as untimely under OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (1) and (3).

         1. Subsection (c) of OCGA § 9-14-42[5] "provides for a period of limitations to seek a writ of habeas corpus in state court for the denial of a federal or state constitutional right. In the case of a felony other than one involving a death sentence, any action must be filed within four years from" one of four alternative dates. State v. Sosa, 291 Ga. 734, 735-736 (1) (733 S.E.2d 262) (2012). The time provided in paragraph (c) (1) begins to run upon "[t]he judgment becoming final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review." Abrams's kidnapping convictions became final when the time for appeal expired on November 16, 2005. See OCGA § 5-6-38 (a). Because he did not file his habeas petition within four years of that date, it was untimely under OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (1) and subject to dismissal unless it was timely under another paragraph. Abrams has never claimed that paragraph (c) (2) is applicable. Indeed, there has been no showing of any "impediment" created by unconstitutional state action as required by that paragraph.

         2. Under paragraph (c) (3) of OCGA § 9-14-42, the statute of limitation is tolled until "[t]he date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States or the Supreme Court of Georgia, if that right was newly recognized by said courts and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review." This paragraph potentially applies to Abrams's habeas petition because the right that he asserts was initially recognized by Garza, was subsequently identified as a substantive right that should be applied retroactively, see Hammond v. State, 289 Ga. 142, 143-144 (1) (710 S.E.2d 124) (2011), and was thereafter applied retroactively to cases on collateral review, see Wilkerson v. Hart, 294 Ga. 605, 607 (2) (755 S.E.2d 192) (2014); Chatman v. Brown, 291 Ga. 785, n. 1 (733 S.E.2d 712) (2012). This raises the question of when the time provided pursuant to paragraph (c) (3) begins to run. Is it the date when the asserted right was initially recognized, when that right was made retroactively applicable to cases on direct review, or when the right was made retroactively applicable specifically to cases on collateral review?

         The answer to this question depends on a proper interpretation of OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (3).

Pursuant to the rules of statutory construction, we presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. To that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would. Applying these principles, if the statutory text is clear and unambiguous, we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning is at an end.

Williams v. State, 299 Ga. 632, 633 (791 S.E.2d 55) (2016) (citations and quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, in construing a Georgia statute that closely tracks federal statutory law, we may look to federal court decisions and commentary interpreting the federal statute as persuasive authority. See Bowden v. The Medical Center, 297 Ga. 285, 291 (2) (a), n. 5 (773 S.E.2d 692) (2015); ABCO Builders v. Progressive Plumbing, 282 Ga. 308, 309 (647 S.E.2d 574) (2007).

         Examination of OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) shows that, except for providing a time period of four years rather than one year, it conforms very closely to both the one-year statute of limitation applicable to a federal habeas application by a person in custody pursuant to a state court judgment, 28 USC § 2244 (d) (1), and the one-year statute of limitation that applies to a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a federal sentence, 28 USC § 2255 (f) (formerly codified as 28 USC § 2255, ¶ 6). See Whiteside v. United States, 775 F.3d 180, 183, n. 2 (4th Cir. 2014) ("The statute of limitations provisions . . . under 28 USC § 2244 (d) (1) (A)-(D) and 28 USC § 2255 (f) (1)-(4) are in all material respects identical."). The limitation period under each of those federal statutes runs from the latest of four dates that are virtually the same as the four specified in OCGA § 9-14-42 (c). In particular, the period of limitation under 28 USC § 2255 (f) (3) runs from "the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review." The Supreme Court of the United States has determined that this text "unequivocally identifies one, and only one, date from which the 1-year limitation period is measured . . . . What Congress has said . . . is clear: An applicant has one year from the date on which the right he asserts was initially recognized by this Court." Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 357 (125 S.Ct. 2478, 162 L.Ed.2d 343) (2005). And one of our sister states has recently relied on Dodd to interpret a nearly identical provision in the very same way. State v. Goynes, 876 N.W.2d 912, 919-920 (Neb. 2016).

         Under the only natural reading of the text, 28 USC § 2255 (f) (3), like OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (3), identifies in its first clause "one date and one date only as the date from which the . . . limitation period runs: 'the date on which the right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court.'" Dodd, 545 U.S. at 358 (emphasis in original).[6] "In Dodd, the Court made clear that the second clause - '"if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review" - imposes a condition on the applicability of this subsection.'" Goynes, 876 N.W.2d at 920 (citation omitted). As the United States Supreme Court recognized, "the definition of 'if' is 'in the event that' or 'on condition that.'" Dodd, 545 U.S. at 358 (citing Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1124 (1993)). The second clause therefore limits the application of 28 USC § 2255 (f) (3) "to cases in which applicants are seeking to assert rights 'newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review.'" Id.

Dodd continues: "As long as the conditions in the second clause are satisfied so that (§ 2255 (f) (3)) applies in the first place, that (second) clause has no impact whatsoever on the date from which the . . . limitation period . . . begins to run." In Dodd, the Court recognized it was a legislative decision that § 2255 (f) (3) established "'stringent procedural requirements for retroactive application of new rules'" on collateral review and that the Court did "'not have license to question the decision on policy grounds.'"

Goynes, 876 N.W.2d at 920 (citations omitted).

         The same reasoning applies to our reading of the limitation period set by our General Assembly in OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (3). See Goynes, 876 N.W.2d at 920. See also Fullwood v. Sivley, 271 Ga. 248, 249, 251 (517 S.E.2d 511) (1999) ("This Court is not at liberty 'to ignore jurisdictional and procedural statutes and rules, and to change its role from disinterested decision-maker' . . . . Habeas corpus is a civil, not a criminal, remedy. Moreover, the fact that habeas corpus has been called an 'equitable' remedy does not authorize a court to ignore the body of statutes, rules, and precedents governing its issuance. Equity cannot supersede the positive enactments of the General Assembly." (citations omitted)). Consequently, if this Court decides a case recognizing a new right, a convicted felon not sentenced to death seeking to assert that right will have four years from this Court's decision within which to file his habeas petition, and "[h]e may take advantage of the date in the first clause of [OCGA § 9-14-42 (c) (3)] only if the conditions in the second clause are met." Dodd, 545 U.S. at 359. In this case, therefore, because the right asserted by Abrams was "newly recognized" in Garza, Abrams had four years from the date of the Garza decision, November 3, 2008, to file his habeas petition even though the Garza right was subsequently "made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review." As Abrams's petition had to be filed no later than November 3, 2012 and it was not filed until May 10, 2016, it was not timely under paragraph (c) (3) of OCGA § 9-14-42.

         3. Paragraph (c) (4) of OCGA § 9-14-42 provides that the statute of limitation is tolled until "[t]he date on which the facts supporting the claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence." Abrams argued below that, as a pro se litigant, he did not know about Garza, but filed his habeas petition as soon as he heard about the change in the law of kidnapping in that case.[7] In the briefs filed in this Court on Abrams's behalf, his new appellate attorneys have expressly relied on paragraph (c) (4), contending that Abrams filed his habeas petition within four years of his discovery of the violation of his legal rights based upon the exercise of due diligence. Assuming that Abrams sufficiently raised that contention, it is without merit because the time ...


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