High Court Examines R.I. Criminal Procedure Case

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday appeared willing to let a Rhode Island prisoner’s motion for a lighter sentence stop the clock on his one-year deadline for filing a federal habeas petition.

     “I don’t want to have to figure this out case by case, or even jurisdiction by jurisdiction,” Justice Antonin Scalia said, arguing against Rhode Island’s stance that a prisoner could pause the statute of limitations if challenging his conviction on legal grounds but not if filing a plea for leniency.
     “And that makes me inclined to say we should treat your [rule] as coming within the tolling provision,” Scalia said. “I don’t want to have to do this for 50 states.”
     Rhode Island prisoner Khalil Kholi filed a motion in 1996 to reduce his double life sentence for first-degree sexual assault, which was denied by the state superior court and then upheld by the state Supreme Court.
     While his appeal was pending in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Kholi filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state superior court, which was rejected in 2003. The decision was affirmed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2006.
     In 2007, Kholi filed for habeas relief in federal district court, and the state attorney general moved to dismiss Kholi’s claim, saying it was barred by the one-year statute of limitations.
     A federal judge ruled that Kholi’s petition was untimely, but the 1st Circuit in Boston reversed on appeal, saying Kholi’s motion qualified as an “application for state post-conviction or other collateral review,” which tolls the one-year time limit.
     Rhode Island Assistant Attorney General Aaron Weisman argued that Kholi’s plea for leniency was not a legal ground upon which a prisoner could stop the clock on the statute of limitations, saying Rhode Island only tolled the statute if a prisoner was seeking to invalidate the judgment itself, not merely reduce the sentence.
     Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that even if Rhode Island interpreted the phrase “collateral review” to include only motions to correct a legal error in a prisoner’s sentence or conviction, Rhode Island would still lose the case, because Kholi could argue that there was an abuse of discretion in deciding the sentence in state court, giving him legal ground for tolling.
     “I don’t see why you don’t lose anyway,” Kennedy said.
     Weisman insisted that a plea for leniency was not a legal challenge to the sentencing or conviction under the tolling provision.
     “It’s a little odd to say it’s not legal,” Kennedy said. “We’ve never thought of [an abuse of discretion standard] as being somehow extra-legal.”
     Boston federal public defender Judith Mizner, representing Kholi, said the phrase included all review of a case following a final judgment, not just review of the judgment itself.
     The court’s ruling will help clarify which challenges are included in the phrase “post-conviction or other collateral review.” The 10th Circuit has held that a plea for leniency tolls the limitation period, while three other circuits have refused to stop the clock for a leniency motion.
     The ruling will likely impact the way state prisoners seek federal habeas relief.

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