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Iowa Supreme Court Announces New SOL Rule for Consecutive Postconviction IAC Claims

by Dale Chappell

Citing constitutional problems if a petitioner is denied a remedy where defense counsel was ineffective, the Supreme Court of Iowa announced a new rule to allow a subsequent postconviction review (“PCR”) petition raising the same ineffective assistance of trial counsel (“IAC”) claim even after the statute of limitations had run, where PCR counsel was also ineffective in pursuing the initial IAC claim.

When Brian Allison filed his second PCR petition alleging that defense counsel at trial was ineffective, the district court dismissed his petition as untimely because it was filed just over three years after his conviction became final. The court ruled that, according to the Iowa Supreme Court’s holding in Dible v. State, 557 N.W.2d 881 (Iowa 1996), ineffective assistance of PCR counsel is not a “ground of fact” under Iowa Code § 822.3 that allows the filing of a PCR petition after the three-year statute of limitations has expired.

The court of appeals affirmed when Allison appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to reevaluate its 5-4 decision in Dible.

The Supreme Court observed that this case posed what it called a “difficult” question: “What happens when a PCR petitioner alleges that his criminal trial attorney was ineffective, further alleges that his attorney in his first PCR proceeding was ineffective, and now seeks to have the underlying claim—which the first PCR attorney was allegedly ineffective in presenting—heard on the merits outside the three-year time frame of section 822.3?”

Iowa Code § 822.3 imposes a three-year statute of limitations for all PCR petitions, including subsequent petitions. Section 822.5 provides a right to PCR counsel, which the Iowa Supreme Court has held logically means the right to “effective” counsel. This statutory entitlement to PCR counsel is governed by the Iowa Constitution’s guarantee that “in cases involving the life, or liberty of an individual,” the person has the right to counsel. Unlike the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel “in all criminal proceedings,” the Iowa Constitution extends beyond criminal proceedings.

The right to counsel in PCR cases in the U.S. Supreme Court has been “fragmented and highly contested,” the Iowa Supreme Court noted. In Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no categorical right to counsel in PCR cases under the Sixth Amendment. The Finley Court reasoned that “our cases establish that the right to appointed counsel extends to the first appeal of right, and no further” and that due process does not require appointment of counsel when used as a “sword to upset the prior determination of guilt.”

Two years later, in the plurality opinion of Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the lower courts’ ruling that Finley does not apply to death penalty cases. Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion emphasized that because postconviction petitions are “civil actions designed to overturn cases a presumptively valid criminal judgment,” she agreed that counsel was not required to be appointed, even for death penalty cases (though nearly every state, including the federal system, does appoint counsel for condemned prisoners on postconviction review).

Another two years later, in Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991), the Court applied Finley to hold that PCR counsel’s neglect did not excuse the late filing of a postconviction appeal, because the petitioner had no constitutional right to PCR counsel. However, the Court expressly left open the question of whether a PCR petitioner was entitled to counsel under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment where the IAC claim may only be raised for the first time in a PCR action.

Twenty years later, in Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), the Court addressed that question left unanswered in Coleman but again avoided answering it. Still, the Court recognized that a PCR action “is in many ways the equivalent of a prisoner’s direct appeal as to the ineffective-assistance claim.” The Court declined to hold there is a right to counsel in such cases, citing the Court’s reluctance under “federalism” to tell states what to do.

The Iowa Supreme Court synthesized these cases and concluded that while the Sixth Amendment might not require counsel in PCR cases because they are “civil,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court, “it has no application at all” under Iowa’s Constitution. “The scope of the right to counsel under the Iowa Constitution is not limited by narrow federal constitutional precedent,” the Court concluded.

In light of its own cases since Dible was decided, the Iowa Supreme Court determined its holding in Dible is “problematic in light of the constitutional backdrop.” The Court reasoned that a defendant could have an ineffective lawyer in the criminal proceedings and then an ineffective lawyer in the PCR proceedings, with the end result that a potentially meritorious PCR claim might not get raised within the three-year limit because of “bungling lawyers.” “We bristle at the notion that a criminal defendant has no constitutionally protected right to at least one competent attorney,” the Court pronounced quite sensibly.

“Under Dible, there is a distinct possibility that a defendant may be convicted of serious crimes even though he never had an effective lawyer at trial or in PCR,” the Court noted.

The Court announced an entirely new rule in such cases: “We think the best approach is to hold that where a PCR petition alleging postconviction counsel was ineffective in presenting the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim, the timing of the filing of the second PCR petition relates back to the timing of the original PCR petition.”

This rule, the Court said, “ensures that the right to effective assistance of counsel in PCR is not cut off by the running of the statute of limitations.”

Turning to the present case, the Court cautioned that nothing in its discussion suggests that Allison is entitled to relief. That is, the Court advised that it takes no position on the merits of his IAC claims. The proper way to address the legal question raised in this case “is not to grant a motion to dismiss but to permit Allison to develop the ineffective issue,” instructed the Court.

Accordingly, the Iowa Supreme Court vacated the decision of the court of appeals, reversed the district court’s judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its decision.

See: Allison v. State, 914 N.W.2d 866 (Iowa 2018). 


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