SCOTUS Announces Statute of Limitations for § 1983 Claim Challenging State’s Postconviction DNA Testing Procedures Begins to Run Upon Completion of State-Court Litigation, Including Appeals
by Richard Resch
The Supreme Court of the United States held that when a prisoner’s request for postconviction DNA testing of evidence in accordance with the process established by the state is denied and the prisoner files a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 procedural due process claim challenging the constitutionality of the state process, the statute of limitations (“SOL”) for the § 1983 claim begins to run at the completion of the state-court litigation – including state-court appeals – not when the state trial court denies the request for DNA testing.
In 1996, Stacey Stites was strangled to death; Rodney Reed was charged with her murder. At trial, Reed argued that her fiancé or another acquaintance murdered her. The jury rejected his defense and convicted him. He was sentenced to death. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, and his state and federal habeas petitions were unsuccessful.
In 2014, Reed filed a motion requesting DNA testing on more than 40 items of evidence pursuant to Texas’ postconviction DNA testing law. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Arts. 64.01-64.05 (Vernon 2018). The state prosecutor, Bryan Goertz, opposed the motion, and the state trial court subsequently denied it. The court reasoned that (1) several of the items Reed requested testing on were not preserved through a proper chain of custody and (2) he did not show that he would have been acquitted if the DNA results were exculpatory. The court’s decision was affirmed on appeal by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”), which also denied Reed’s subsequent motion for rehearing.
Reed then filed suit under § 1983, challenging Texas’ postconviction DNA testing law for failing to provide procedural due process. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas dismissed his complaint. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed on the ground that his suit was time-barred because it was filed after the two-year SOL applicable to § 1983 suits had run. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the SOL began to run when the Texas trial court denied Reed’s motion for postconviction DNA testing, which occurred more than two years before Reed filed his § 1983 suit. Reed v. Goertz, 995 F.3d 425 (5th Cir. 2021). However, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling was in direct conflict with the Eleventh Circuit, which had ruled that the SOL in this situation begins to run at the conclusion of the state-court litigation denying postconviction DNA testing – including state-court appeals. See Van Poyck v. McCollum, 646 F.3d 865 (11th Cir. 2011).
SCOTUS agreed to hear Reed’s appeal to resolve the Circuit split on the issue of when the SOL begins to run on § 1983 suits challenging a state’s postconviction DNA testing procedures. This is a question of federal law. See Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384 (2007).
The Court began its analysis by reciting the general rule governing SOLs, i.e., they begin to run when the plaintiff has a “complete and present cause of action.” Bay Area Laundry and Dry Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Ferbar Corp. of Cal., 522 U.S. 192 (1997). In determining the point at which the plaintiff has a “complete and present cause of action,” courts focus on the specific constitutional right claimed to have been violated. See McDonough v. Smith, 139 S. Ct. 2149 (2019).
In the present case, procedural due process is the specific constitutional right at issue. The Court noted that a procedural due process claim involves two elements: “(i) deprivation by state action of a protected interest in life, liberty, or property, and (ii) inadequate state process.” See Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113 (1990). A procedural due process claim “is not complete when the deprivation occurs;” instead, the claim is “complete” only when “the State fails to provide due process.” Id.
Under Texas’ process for requesting postconviction DNA testing in capital cases, both trial court proceedings as well as appellate review by the CCA are part of that process. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Art. 6405. Additionally, a motion for rehearing is part of the CCA’s appellate review process. Tex. Rule App. Proc. 79.1 (2022).
With those principles in mind, the Court explained “the State’s alleged failure to provide Reed with a fundamentally fair process was complete when the state litigation ended and deprived Reed of his asserted liberty interest in DNA testing.” Thus, the Court held that the SOL on Reed’s § 1983 claim began to run when the CCA denied his motion for rehearing – that is, his § 1983 claim was “complete” at that time because that is when the state litigation ended – and therefore, Reed’s § 1983 suit was timely.
The Court stated that this is the correct conclusion because it is “reinforced by the consequences that would follow” from a different approach. McDonough. For instance, if the SOL were to run when the state trial court denies the prisoner’s request for testing, the prisoner would likely continue with the state proceedings but also “simultaneously file a protective federal § 1983 suit challenging that ongoing state process,” the Court surmised. But such parallel litigation runs “counter to core principles of federalism, comity, consistency, and judicial economy.” Id. The Court declared: “We see no good reason for such senseless duplication.”
Furthermore, the Court explained that there are “systemic benefits” for starting the SOL at the conclusion of the state-litigation process. For example, if there are flaws in the state process, they may be exposed and remedied during the state appellate process, which would render a § 1983 suit unnecessary. Additionally, if the state appellate court interprets the state DNA testing statute, that would “streamline and focus subsequent § 1983 proceedings,” the Court reasoned.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit. See: Reed v. Goertz, 2023 U.S. LEXIS 1665 (2023).
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