IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
November 16, 2009
KENNETH WILLIAMS, PETITIONER
WARDEN PAUL J. STOWITSKY, ET AL., RESPONDENTS
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo
Petitioner Kenneth Williams (Williams), an inmate currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Greene in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, commenced this action by filing a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1-2.)*fn1 The matter was subsequently transferred to this Court. Mr. Williams seeks to challenge his 2004 conviction and sentence in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania ("trial court" or "Luzerne County court"). For the reasons that follow, the Petition will be dismissed without prejudice for failure to exhaust state court remedies.
On June 14, 2004, following a jury trial in the Luzerne County court, Mr. Williams was found guilty of one count each of possession of a controlled substance - cocaine; possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance - cocaine; delivery of a controlled substance - cocaine; criminal conspiracy; and criminal use of a communication facility. (Doc. 1-15, Criminal Information and Jury Verdict.) Prior to sentencing, Mr. Williams filed two motions for post-conviction relief in the trial court on July 1, 2004, and July 23, 2004, respectively, which were denied.*fn2 On August 25, 2004, the Luzerne County court sentenced Mr. Williams to a term of imprisonment of sixty-six (66) to one hundred thirty-six (136) months. (Doc. 1-16, Sentencing.) Mr. Williams subsequently filed a post-sentence motion, which was denied by the trial court by order dated February 3, 2005. (Doc. 1-18, Trial Court Order.)
On May 5, 2005, Mr. Williams timely filed a petition for post-conviction collateral relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann, § 9541 et seq. in the Luzerne County court.*fn3 (See Williams, CP- 40-CR-2651-2003.) The Luzerne County court has not yet ruled on that petition.
The Luzerne County court's docket indicates that Mr. Williams filed a second PCRA petition on January 10, 2006. (See id.) However, in response to an Order issued by this Court directing Respondents to provide the Court with a copy of that petition, (see Doc. 4), Respondents assert that the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office was never served with a PCRA petition dated January 10, 2006, (Doc. 6 at R. 2). Respondents further assert that neither the Luzerne County Clerk of Courts, nor the assigned Luzerne County judge, possesses a PCRA petition filed on January 10, 2006, or is aware of any such petition having been filed. (Id.) Thus, Respondents allege that the January 10, 2006 PCRA petition was not filed, and that the docket in the case indicating the filing of such a petition is erroneous. (Id.) However, in his reply to the response to the instant habeas petition, Mr. Williams asserts that he did in fact file a PCRA petition on January 10, 2006. (Doc. 1-12.)
On April 11, 2006, Mr. Williams filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, purportedly from an order dated April 6, 2006. (See Williams, CP-40-CR-2651-2003; Doc. 1-12 at R. 2.) In his reply to the response to the instant petition, Mr. Williams asserts that he inadvertently recorded the incorrect date of April 6, 2006 as the date of entry of the order being appealed. (Id.) As a result, the Superior Court quashed the appeal on September 27, 2006, noting that the trial court docket did not reflect that any order had been entered on that date. (Id.; Doc. 1-34, Superior Court of Pennsylvania Docket No. 659 MDA 2006.)
On October 6, 2006, Mr. Williams filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court from the trial court's February 3, 2005 order denying his post-sentence motion. (See Williams, CP-40-CR-2651-2003; Doc. 1-12 at 2.) No action has been taken on this appeal.*fn4
On January 9, 2007, Mr. Williams filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1, Williams v. Stowitzky, Civil No. 2:07-cv-00038, Docket Sheet.) In the petition, Mr. Williams asserts the following claims: (1) the trial court erred in allowing hearsay testimony, which led to a violation of his right to face his accuser as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution; and (2) the trial court should have called a handwriting expert after the jury foreman requested one in order to determine whether a written statement was in fact prepared by Mr. Williams. (Doc. 1-2.)
The Western District Court directed service of the habeas petition on January 22, 2007. (Doc. 1-6.) Respondents responded to the petition, contending, inter alia, that Mr. Williams was not entitled to a review of his claims because they are procedurally defaulted. (Doc. 1-10.) Subsequently, the Western District Court issued an order on August 29, 2007, indicating that it was unable to adjudicate Mr. Williams' habeas petition because the state court record was incomplete and Respondents had provided an inadequate response to the petition. (Doc. 1-22.) As a result, the court ordered that the response be stricken, and that Respondents provide a further response to the petition including the status of the two PCRA petitions currently pending before the Luzerne County court. (Id.) Pursuant to the Western District Court's order, Respondents filed another response to the habeas petition on September 7, 2007, contending that Mr. Williams is not entitled to review of his claims because he has failed to exhaust his state court remedies. (Doc. 1-24.) On September 21, 2007, the Western District Court transferred this matter to this Court. (Doc. 1-36.) This matter is now ripe for disposition.
A habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a prisoner to challenge the "fact or duration" of her confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99, 93 S.Ct. 1827, 1840-41, 36 L.Ed.2d 439 (1973). "[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68, 112 S.Ct. 475, 480, 116 L.Ed.2d 385 (1991). Rather, federal habeas review is restricted to claims based "on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-68, 112 S.Ct. at 480; see also Johnson v. Rosemeyer, 117 F.3d 104, 109 (3d Cir. 1997). "Before a federal court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner, the prisoner must exhaust his remedies in state court." O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 1731, 144 L.Ed.2d 1(1999). A petitioner is not deemed to have exhausted the remedies available to him if he has a right under the state law to raise, by any available procedure, the question presented. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(c); Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 350, 109 S.Ct. 1056, 1059, 103. L.Ed.2d 380 (1989).
The exhaustion requirement is grounded on principles of comity in order to ensure that state courts have the initial opportunity to review federal constitutional challenges to state convictions. Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 192 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Caswell v. Ryan, 953 F.2d 853, 857 (3d Cir. 1992)). As explained by the United States Supreme Court, "it would be unseemly in our dual system of government for a federal district court to upset a state court conviction without an opportunity to the state courts to correct a constitutional violation." Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 518, 102 S.Ct. 1198, 1203, 71 L.Ed.2d 379 (1982)(quoting Darr v. Burford, 339 U.S. 200, 204, 70 S.Ct. 587, 590, 94 L.Ed. 761 (1950)). Further, the doctrine of comity requires that a federal court "defer action on causes properly within its jurisdiction until the courts of another sovereignty with concurrent powers, and already cognizant of the litigation, have had an opportunity to pass upon the matter." Rose, 455 U.S. at 518, 102 S.Ct. at 1203 (quoting Darr, 339 U.S. at 204, 70 S.Ct. at 590).
In the instant case, in their response to the habeas petition, Respondents argue that the petition is unexhausted because Mr. Williams' 2005 PCRA petition is currently pending in state court.*fn5 As a result, Respondents contend, Mr. Williams' instant habeas petition is premature and should be dismissed without prejudice.
The Court agrees that the claims brought by Mr. Williams are premature, and therefore the instant petition should be dismissed without prejudice. Where a PCRA petition remains pending in state court, the exhaustion requirement is not satisfied. See Singleton v. Wynder, 485 F.Supp. 2d 602, 604 n.2 (E.D. Pa. 2007) ("because [the habeas petitioner] still has a PCRA petition pending, his state court remedies remain unexhausted"). Further, although the exhaustion requirement may be excused in certain circumstances,*fn6 as argued by Mr. Williams, there is no reason to believe that the appropriate state court could not or would not grant Mr. Williams' requested relief if warranted. In fact, should Mr. Williams succeed in his PCRA petition, the instant habeas petition would be rendered moot. Additionally, judicial comity compels dismissal of this habeas petition, without prejudice, because the state system must be afforded the first opportunity to redress any errors before this Court interjects itself into the state court proceedings.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will dismiss without prejudice the instant habeas petition. (Doc. 1-2.)
An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 16th day of November, 2009, upon consideration of the petition for writ of habeas corpus (Doc. 1-2), and the reasons set forth in the accompanying Memorandum, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED AS FOLLOWS:
1. The petition for writ of habeas corpus (Doc. 1-2) is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
2. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.
3. There is no basis for the issuance of a certificate of appealability. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c).
A. RICHARD CAPUTO United States District Judge