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Lawrence v. Ford

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

January 24, 2018

TAMMY FORD, Warden Respondent.



         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Before the court is the respondent's Motion to Dismiss the Petition for Failure to Exhaust State Remedies (“Motion to Dismiss). (ECF No. 10), to which the petitioner has responded (ECF No. 11).[1] For the reasons set forth herein, the court will deny the respondent's Motion to Dismiss and stay the case pending the completion of the state court proceedings.


         I. Background

         On August 18, 2016, the petitioner was convicted in the Circuit Court of Wayne County pursuant to a plea agreement. The petitioner pleaded guilty to one count of criminal responsibility for aggravated arson, amended to arson, and one count of criminal responsibility for the manufacture of methamphetamine. (ECF No. 15-1 at Page ID# 78-83.)[2] The petitioner was sentenced to an effective term of 10 years in prison. (Id.) There is no evidence to suggest that the petitioner filed a post-conviction petition or any other state court challenge to his plea or sentence.

         The petitioner states that, on October 8, 2016, he received a copy of his TOMIS Offender Sentence Letter (“OSL”) from the Tennessee Department of Corrections (“TDOC”) and noticed that the letter did not accurately reflect his convictions. (ECF No. 1 at Page ID# 8-9.) Indeed, while the TOMIS OSL accurately reflects the petitioner's 10-year sentence and his conviction for initiation of process to manufacture methamphetamine, it reflects a conviction for arson of a place of worship, an offense to which the petitioner did not plead guilty. (Id.) Many months later, on May 11, 2017, the petitioner went before the parole board and was denied parole. (Id. at Page ID# 4.) The petitioner asserts that he was denied parole because the “parol[e] board did not have the correct charges.” (Id.)

         On June 11, 2017, the petitioner filed the instant habeas petition.[3] At the same time, the petitioner filed a petition for declaratory order with the TDOC in compliance with the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (“UAPA”).[4] (ECF No. 11 at PageID## 50-52.) On June 23, 2017, the TDOC denied the petition, explaining that it “is required to obey the judgment orders as they are received from the court of jurisdiction, and we have. Any issue you may have with your judgment orders must be addressed with the court of jurisdiction.” (Id. at PageI D# 48.) The TDOC went on to explain that “the judgment order that you provided shows the conviction offense[s]” are “arson” and “criminal responsibility for initiation of process to manufacture.” (Id.)[5]

         Since receiving the TDOC letter denying his petition for declaratory order, the petitioner has apparently been contacting District Attorney Beverly White, the Clerk of Court and a Circuit Court Judge in an attempt to exhaust his state remedies and to obtain assistance in having his TOMIS information accurately reflect his convictions. (ECF No. 11 at Page ID# 44-45.)

         On October 25, 2017, the respondent filed an affidavit from DA White, in which she explains that there was an error in the original plea agreement because the convictions to which the petitioner pleaded did not support a 10-year sentence to be served at 30%, the sentence to which the petitioner agreed. (ECF No. 15-1 at Page ID# 76-77.) On October 21, 2016, DA White learned that an error had been made when she received a letter from the TDOC stating “conviction class is invalid for conviction offense.” (Id.) According to DA White, arson is a class C felony rather than a Class B felony and, as such, the arson conviction did not support the petitioner's agreed-upon 10-year sentence. (Id.)[6] DA White stated that she and the petitioner's trial attorney attempted numerous times to bring the petitioner before the trial court to amend the judgment so that the convictions would match the sentence but that the petitioner was, apparently, quite reluctant to do so. (Id.)[7] DA White notes that the petitioner was scheduled to appear in state court on November 9, 2017. As such, this action may still be before the state court.

         II. Failure to exhaust available state-court remedies

         Before the court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner, the prisoner must exhaust remedies available in the state courts. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999). Exhaustion requires a petitioner to “fairly present” federal claims so that state courts have a “fair opportunity” to apply controlling legal principles to the facts bearing upon a petitioner's constitutional claim. See O'Sullivan, 526 U.S. at 842; Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275-77 (1971), cited in Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365 (1995), and Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 6 (1982). “[S]tate prisoners must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process.” O'Sullivan, 526 U.S. at 845.[8] Petitioner bears the burden of showing exhaustion. See Rust v. Zent, 17 F.3d 155, 160 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Because the petitioner appears to have an action in the state court related to the issues regarding his judgment of conviction, it may be that petitioner has failed to exhaust his claims. However, although the parties do not address this issue, in addition to determining whether the petition is exhausted, the court may sua sponte consider whether the petition is time-barred. See Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 209 (2006).

         Because the parties have not addressed the statute of limitations issue, the court cannot, and does not at this point, determine when petitioner's statute of limitations began to run. However, in an abundance of caution, rather than dismiss the petition and potentially bar future federal habeas review of the petitioner's claims, the court will deny the respondent's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 10) and stay the petition pending exhaustion of state-court remedies. The petitioner's “Motion for Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus to not be Dismissed, ” which the court has construed as a response to the respondent's Motion to Dismiss, will be denied as moot. (ECF No. 10.) The Clerk will be directed to administratively close the case.

         Additionally, the respondent will be ordered to notify the court in writing within 30 days after any pending state court proceedings have concluded. The court cautions the petitioner that, if he does not move to reopen this matter in a timely fashion once his state court proceedings ...

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