Cruz v. Marshall, App. No. 15-6130 (filed 12/19/16), Unpublished 4th Circuit HABEAS REMAND

Excellent work by the Appellate Litigation Project, Georgetown University Law Center!  Cruz, a habeas petitioner, filed a petition alleging 5 grounds of relief.  The State moved to dismiss the petition as untimely.  The magistrate court recommended granting the State’s motion.  Cruz then filed objections to the Report and Recommendation (R&R), and the district court summarily rejected those objections, adopted the recommendation, and dismissed the petition as untimely.  The Fourth Circuit granted Certificates of Appealability (COA’s) on the issues of whether the petition timely asserted a Brady violation and an ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim.  The Fourth Circuit held that:

Because the district court failed to properly consider the Petitioner’s objections to the R&R and provide an adequate rationale for its decision, the Court vacated the district court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings.

Essentially, this pro se petitioner filed his habeas petition but failed to include the dates of when he found out important facts that bared on whether his petition was timely or not.  The State motioned that it be dismissed as untimely.  The R&R found the claims were untimely because he failed to plead sufficient facts to toll the statute of limitations (if you uncover new facts about your case, you may be able to toll the statute of limitations).  The R&R found the omissions of these dates to be a “fatal flaw” and dismissed the petition.  In his objections, Cruz then FILLED IN THESE DATES.  But DESPITE THAT, the district court still adopted the R&R and declined to issue a certificate of appealability.  And the Fourth Circuit also said this (this is called a “benchslap!”):

“Furthermore, the district court’s laconic order failed to provide any insight as to why the district court was rejecting Petitioner’s objections.”

The Court then explained what the district courts need to do going forward:

When a party raises new information in objections to an R&R, regardless of whether it is new evidence or a new argument, the district court must do more than simply agree with the magistrate.  It must provide independent reasoning tailored to the objection . . . The district court does not need to provide an elaborate or lengthy explanation, but it must provide a specific rationale that permits meaningful appellate review…Because such a reasoned basis is necessary to make appellate review meaningful, we vacate the district court order … (internal citations omitted).

The district court’s order, which stated it “had appropriately reviewed the portions of the Magistrate Judge’s Report to which objection was made and has made a de novo determination in accord with the Magistrate Judge’s report” was not good enough.

An excellent opinion for habeas practitioners.  It shows that the Fourth Circuit takes inmates’ rights seriously, even when they are representing themselves pro se.