Saturday, March 14, 2009
On February 26, 2009, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Larry Streu’s habeas corpus petition and remanded for a hearing. The question before the court was whether Mr. Streu had filed his petition on time. To decide this question, the court had to determine whether the time during which his motion to reopen his Missouri post-conviction action was pending in the Missouri courts counted against the time permitted by the federal habeas corpus statute for the filing of a habeas corpus petition. The court decided that the time did not count, that is, that the statute of limitations was “tolled” while the state court motion was pending in the Missouri courts. So far, so good. This result will likely allow Mr. Streu to have his constitutional arguments about why he was wrongfully convicted heard in federal court. But in the course of its opinion, the court suggested that Mr. Streu, who, until I was appointed to represent him in the Eighth Circuit, had been proceeding without a lawyer, might have filed the state court motion in order to give himself more time to file the federal petition. What’s wrong with this idea? Two things. First, Mr. Streu wants to get out of prison. He has no incentive to delay filing anything. The sooner he gets things filed, the better off he will be. Of course, since he is not a trained lawyer, and doesn’t have access to much in the way of legal research tools, filing court papers is a laborious process. But he certainly has no incentive to delay. Second, even if Mr. Streu did want to buy himself more time to prepare his federal petition, how would taking the time to file a state motion do that? Filing the state court motion takes just as much time and effort as filing a federal petition. So why did Mr. Streu file a state court motion? He did so because in general, issues that weren’t raised in state court can’t be raised in federal court. By filing his state court motion, he was trying to let the state court rule on an issue that he thought his state court lawyers had missed. If the state court had granted relief, that would have been fine with him, and he would not have needed to go to federal court at all. Obviously, this sort of filing should be encouraged by the federal court, not discouraged. The Streu decision will have the effect of doing that, and the federal court need not worry about delay.