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Harris v. Steberger

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 22, 2017

JAMAL HARRIS, Petitioner,
CHERYL STEBERGER, [1] et al., Respondents.


          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Jamal Harris filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241. Upon consideration of the record, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey's Report and Recommendation (“R & R”), and Harris's objections thereto, the Court adopts the R & R and denies Harris's petition.


         On November 16, 2012, Harris was charged with criminal homicide in relation to the November 14, 2012 shooting death of Dennis McFadden, Jr. in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Crim. Compl., ECF No. 5-1, Ex. A.) He was denied bail on November 19, 2012 and has remained in the Lancaster County Prison since that time. Docket, Harris v. Commonwealth, No. CP-36-CR-0000178-2013; see also (“Docket Sheet, ” Nov. 19, 2012 entry, ECF No. 5-1, Ex. D). The criminal information was filed on January 29, 2013 and Andrew Spade, Esq. entered his appearance to represent Harris on March 12, 2013. (Crim. Information, ECF No. 5-1, Ex. B.) Spade then filed several motions for continuance, including one asserting that Harris may be incompetent to stand trial and requesting a medical evaluation. (Id.) Harris was evaluated by Dr. Gotleib.[2] (Pet.'s Objections, at 2-4, ECF No. 9.) On January 13, 2014, Judge Madenspacher held a competency hearing, found Harris incompetent and ordered him committed for 90 days in a state hospital for mental health treatment. See (Docket Sheet, Mar. 19, 2013, Oct. 25, 2013, Mar. 9, 2016 entries). Harris contends he remained in the hospital for eight months. (Pet.'s Objections, at 4.) He claims he returned from the hospital and was found competent in October 2015. (Id.) At some point during this hiatus, Harris's case was reassigned to Judge Miller. (Docket Sheet, Jan. 13, 2014, Dec. 18, 2015 entries). On December 18, 2015, Judge Miller ordered Harris's trial to begin the week of April 4, 2016.

         Harris contends that though he was found competent in October 2015, his attorney continued to try to have him declared incompetent (against his will). (Pet.'s Objections, at 4-5.) Harris claims Spade arranged for him to be re-evaluated by Dr. Gotleib. (Id. at 5.) On February 11, 2016, Harris began filing a series of pro se motions asserting violation of his speedy trial rights under Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600[3] and seeking suppression of evidence. (Docket Sheet, Feb. 11, 2016, Feb. 16, 2016, Feb. 29, 2016 entries). When Harris met with Dr. Gotleib, Harris told him that he was competent and believed that Spade, rather than he, was the problem. (Pet.'s Objections, at 5.) Harris contends he was then found competent and given a new defense attorney. (Id.)

         On June 3, 2016, Spade was replaced by Patricia Spotts, Esq. (Docket Sheet, June 3, 2016 entry). However, on September 2, 2016, Harris again filed a pro se motion alleging violation of his speedy trial rights under Rule 600. (Docket Sheet, Sept. 2, 2016 entry). Judge Miller held a scheduling conference on November 10, 2016 and set trial for March 16, 2017. (Nov. 17 Order, ECF No. 5-1, Ex. F.) In the order, Judge Miller permitted the defense to file a Rule 600 motion no later than December 5, 2016. (Id.) Spotts filed a motion to dismiss on December 5, 2016. (Docket Sheet, Dec. 5, 2016 entry.) Although a recent review of the state court docket reveals that the trial has not yet taken place, Judge Miller issued an order on May 26, 2017 setting a trial date, though the date itself is not discernible from the docket. See Docket, Harris v. Commonwealth, No. CP-36-CR-0000178-2013.

         On July 15, 2016, Harris filed this petition for habeas corpus alleging that he was not brought to trial within 365 days as required by Rule 600 and that his prior attorney requested continuances and waived the requirements of Rule 600 without his permission. (Pet., ECF No. 1.) He also contends his prior attorney's actions- requesting continuances and failing to present a Rule 600 motion-and the resulting delays in going to trial violate his due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and his right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment. (Id. at 7.) On December 7, 2016, the District Attorney filed an answer, arguing that Harris's Rule 600 claim is not cognizable in habeas corpus and, in any event, is unexhausted. (Gov.'s Answer, ECF No. 5.)

         In her R & R, Judge Hey first noted that to the extent Harris's speedy trial claims are premised on alleged violations of state procedural rights accorded under Rule 600 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, the claim is not cognizable under habeas corpus. (R & R, at 4, ECF No. 8) (citing Walker v. Kerestes, No. 13-15, 2013 WL 6667776, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2013) (Rule 600 claim not cognizable); Junious v. City of Philadelphia, No. 13-1201, 2013 WL 2156029, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 20, 2013); Wells v. Petsock, 941 F.2d 253, 254 (3d Cir. 1991) (“Pennsylvania's 180-day rule does not define the contours of the federal constitutional right to a speedy trial”)).

         Judge Hey then construed Harris's petition broadly to allege violations of his constitutional rights to due process and a speedy trial stemming from the same delays which he alleges violate Rule 600 and the ineffectiveness of counsel for seeking continuances and failing to present a Rule 600 motion. (R & R, at 4.) Even construing Harris's petition as premised on constitutional violations, however, Judge Hey found that the claims are unexhausted because Harris has not presented the constitutional claims to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. (Id. at 4-6.) She further found that though an exception to the exhaustion requirement exists where “inordinate delay by the state in processing claims for relief . . . render[s] the state remedy effectively unavailable, ” the delay experienced by Harris is not sufficient to warrant applying the exception. (Id. at 6-8) (quoting Wojtczak v. Fulcomer, 800 F.2d 353, 354 (3d Cir. 1986)).


         The Court reviews de novo those portions of an R & R to which a petitioner objects. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Cont'l Cas. Co. v. Dominick D'Andrea, Inc., 150 F.3d 245, 250 (3d Cir. 1998). The Court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). Here, however, Harris's objections do not respond to the R & R or address the requirement that Harris exhaust his claims in state court. They instead reiterate Harris's disagreements with his prior attorney's actions and his dissatisfaction with the resulting delays. (Pet.'s Objections, at 1-10.) Though the Court “is not required to review general objections, ” Drew v. Wetzel, No. 15-2725, 2017 WL 1326141, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 11, 2017), it nevertheless reviews the R & R de novo and finds that Judge Hey's recommendation is correct.


         As an initial matter, to the extent Harris's petition is premised solely on violations of procedural rights accorded him under Rule 600 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, the claim is not cognizable under habeas corpus. See Walker, No. 13-15, 2013 WL 6667776, at *9-11. The Court, however, agrees with Judge Hey that this does not conclude the matter because, construing his petition ...

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