Lawrence v. Florida


1. Does filing a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court for post-conviction relief toll the one-year statute of limitations for filing for a writ of habeas corpus?

2. Does the confusion resulting from a split of opinion among the U.S. Courts of Appeals create an extraordinary circumstance where equitable tolling should apply and allow Petitioner to file for a writ of habeas corpus even though the one-year limitation period has expired?

3. Are there extraordinary circumstances under which equitable tolling would apply and allow an extension of time for filing a habeas corpus petition when petitioner’s attorney was appointed by the state and failed to fulfill his duty to make sure that all of petitioner’s filings were made on time?

Oral argument: 
October 31, 2006

For a criminal defendant to appeal his conviction under a writ of habeas corpus, he must file a petition for relief with the district court within one year of the final resolution of state court appeal. An extension of this time is granted when there is an extraordinary circumstance justifying equitable tolling or if a statute authorizes it. Lawrence v. Florida asks the Supreme Court to determine whether a pending request for Supreme Court certiorari is 1) a statutory tolling event, 2) whether such a pending request for certiorari is an extraordinary event justifying equitable tolling, or 3) whether the delayed filing of a habeas petition by a state-assigned attorney is an extraordinary event justifying equitable tolling of the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court 's decision in this case will determine the availability of important post-conviction relief to indigent defendants affected by inconveniencing circumstances beyond their control.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

1. There is a split in the circuits about whether the one-year period of limitations is tolled for "[t]he time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment of claim is pending . . . . " antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) 28 U.S.C. Section 2244(d) (2). Where a defendant facing death has pending a United States Supreme Court certiorari petition to review the validity of the state's denial of his claims for state post-conviction relief, does the defendant have an application pending which tolls the 2244 (d)(2) statute of limitations?

2. Alternatively, does the confusion around the statute of limitations –as evidenced by the split in the circuits -constitute an "extraordinary circumstance," entitling the diligent defendant to equitable tolling during the time when his claim is being considered by the United States Supreme Court on certiorari?

3. And in the second alternative, do the special circumstance where counsel advising the defendant as to the statute of limitations was registry counsel - a species of state actor - under the monitoring supervision of Florida Courts, with a statutory duty to file appropriate motions in a timely manner, constitute an "extraordinary circumstance" beyond the defendant's control such that the doctrine of equitable tolling should operate to save his petition?


The Crime and State Proceedings

On July 28, 1994, Gary Lawrence, with assistance from his ex-wife Brenda, brutally murdered Brenda’s lover, Michael Finken. See Lawrence v. State, 698 So.2d 1219, 1220 (Fla. 1997). While Michael was sleeping Gary and Brenda conversed, decided to kill Michael, collected weapons such as a pipe and baseball bat, and proceeded to beat Michael’s head with these blunt instruments until he died. See id. Even after Michael was killed, Gary and Brenda continued to mutilate his body. See id. After enlisting another friend to transport Michael’s body to a secluded area, Gary set the body on fire, returned home, and celebrated the murder with Brenda. See id.

In Gary Lawrence’s trial before a jury in the Florida State Court he was found guilty of first degree murder, robbery, grand theft of a motor vehicle, and conspiracy to commit a murder. The jury further determined that the murder was heinous, atrocious, or cruel (HAC) and committed in a cold, calculated, and pre-meditated (CCP) manner, which qualified the jury to consider more severe sentencing options, such as the death penalty. The jury then did sentence Lawrence to death and also several consecutive prison terms as punishment for the grand theft and robbery charges. See Lawrence v. State, 421 F.3d 1221, 1222 (11th Cir. 2005).

Appellate Proceedings

Lawrence appealed his conviction through all methods available to him. First, he appealed through the Florida State Court system, where the Florida Supreme Court ultimately affirmed his conviction despite a plethora of issues raised by Lawrence. Among Lawrence’s grounds for appeal were ineffective assistance of counsel claims because Lawrence’s attorneys highlighted his low IQ and the court failed to make accommodations for him. See Lawrence v. State, 421 F.3d at 1223.

After failing to overturn his conviction in the Florida courts, Lawrence appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court denied certiorari and declined to hear the appeal. See id. Lawrence then returned again to the Florida courts in search of state post-conviction relief, but, on October 11, 2000, was informed of his failure to overturn his death sentence. See id. Lawrence went to the United States Supreme Court again for review of the Florida Supreme Court’s denial of post-conviction relief, but certiorari was denied for a second time. See id.

On March 11, 2003, Lawrence filed a claim for habeas corpus relief, a request that a court determine whether the physical detention of a prisoner is lawful, in U.S. Federal Court under 28 U.S.C. §2254.. Lawrence amended his petition for habeas corpus, but was met not with a trial in the federal court, but rather with an objection from the State of Florida claiming that the federal court should dismiss Lawrence’s petition because he had waited too long to file for habeas corpus relief. See Lawrence v. State, 421 F.3d at 1224. On April 12, 2004, the District Court stayed the proceedings in the habeas corpus case after determining that Lawrence’s petition for habeas corpus was filed too late. Lawrence appealed the District Court’s interpretation of the statute of limitations, arguing that whether he had filed too late depended on whether the one-year limitations period for requesting habeas corpus relief was tolled while the United States Supreme Court was considering his petition for certiorari. See id.The district court also noted that equitable tolling, a doctrine that would stay the time limit for an appeal based on fairness concerns in extraordinary circumstances, did not apply. See id.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit heard the appeal on the issue of the timing of Lawrence’s filing of his petition for habeas corpus. The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court and found that the habeas petition was untimely. The statute of limitations issue was recognized as an appeallable issue but the court did not recognize his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel or equitable tolling. See id at 25. Following this ruling, Lawrence appealed yet again to United States Supreme Court, which this time granted certiorari.


The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 2244, (also known as AEDPA ) is a series of laws in the United States to "deter terrorism, provide justice for victims, provide for an effective death penalty, and for other purposes." Wikipedia. Section 2244(d)(1) of the Act provides a one-year period of limitation for the filing of a habeas petition, which shall run from “the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review.” Section 2244(d)(2) of the Act allows for tolling of this period of limitations for “the time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending.” The circuit courts are divided over whether this tolling applies to the time during which a petition for writ of certiorari brought pursuant to AEDPA is pending before the Supreme Court after the entry of final judgment in the underlying state-court proceedings. In Lawrence v. Florida, the Supreme Court will decide this issue, as well as the validity of petitioner’s alternative claim that the circuit split, and the ineffective assistance of his state-appointed counsel, constitutes “extraordinary circumstances” entitling him to tolling.

Tolling for Certiorari Petition

Lawrence’s claim for tolling while a petition for certiorari is pending rests on a Sixth Circuit opinion, Abela v. Martin, 348 F.3d 164 (6th Cir. 2003), which held in favor of his position.Lawrence further argues that the Supreme Court’s review is an integral final step in the proceedings on the original application for state-conviction relief. Therefore, while a certiorari petition awaits disposition, there can be no “completion of the post-conviction review process.” Brief of Petitioner at 17-18; Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214 (2002). Additionally, nothing in §2244(d)(2) specifies that a “pending” application is one that is pending only in state courts, and the focus should not be on the court in which post-conviction relief is being sought but rather on the incomplete nature of the application itself. In fact, the word “pending” in §2244(d)(2) should be read in congruence with the court’s interpretation of “finality” under §2244(d)(1), which includes an opportunity to seek certiorari. Brief of Petitioner at 19; Clay v. United States, 537 U.S. 522 (2003). Lastly, Lawrence asserts that a rule which forces prisoners to file unripe federal habeas claims concurrently with their certiorari petitions results in irrational and inefficient piecemeal litigation. Brief of Petitioner at 27.

The State of Florida counters Lawrence’s first claim by asserting that ten of the eleven circuits that have considered the issue have held that the time during which certiorari may be sought after a final state denial of post-conviction relief is not tolled under §2244(d)(2). Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 5. The State argues that certiorari petitioners seeking review of state post-conviction decisions are simply not an integral part, nor any part, of the state process. Therefore, once state post-conviction proceedings have been completed in state court, a petitioner should file any federal habeas claims. Id. at 6; Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 181 (2001). Furthermore, the textual distinctions between §2244(d)(1) and §2244(d)(2) prohibit the court from reading these sections in congruence as Lawrence suggests. Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 8. A petition for certiorari is simply not an “application for State post-conviction” relief nor for “other collateral review,” therefore an application for state post-conviction review cannot be considered pending after state avenues for appeal have been exhausted. Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 6, 8; Duncan, 533 U.S. at 181; Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214 (2002). Lastly, the State maintains that Petitioner’s construction of the statute would permit prisoners to elect not to promptly file their federal habeas petitions and gives them the incentive to file frivolous certiorari petitions in order to toll the AEDPA limitations. Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 16-18.

Tolling for Extraordinary Circumstances

Alternatively, Lawrence argues for equitable tolling under the precedent that “a litigant is entitled to equitable tolling of a statute of limitations when he shows that extraordinary circumstances beyond his control prevented the vindication of his rights and that he diligently pursued those rights.” Brief of Petitioner at 30; Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990). Lawrence claims that his reasonable reliance on his state-appointed and monitored counsel prevented him from filing a timely habeas petition. Although he acknowledges that many courts have held that negligence or error of counsel does not warrant equitable tolling, he asserts that capital cases warrant special scrutiny because “death is a different kind of punishment.” Brief of Petitioner at 32; Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349 (1976). Additionally, he points out that courts have shown a particular willingness to toll the statute when faced with questions about the mental competence of those involved in the attorney-client relationship. See Brief of Petitioner at 41; Cantrell v. Knoxville Cmty. Dev. Corp., 60 F.3d 1177, 1180 (6th Cir. 1995). He argues that his intellectual limitations heightened the impact of his attorney’s error, and should be considered in this Court’s decision. Id.

The State then counters Lawrence’s “extraordinary circumstances” claim by asserting that neither ignorance of the law nor attorney error is a “rare and exceptional circumstance” required for tolling. Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 20; Gibson v. Klinger, 232 F.3d 799 (10th Cir. 2000). Ten of the eleven circuits to consider the issue have held that the statute of limitations is not tolled while a certiorari petition is awaiting disposition. Petitioner’s ignorance of this settled law demonstrates a lack of diligence and is not a basis for relief. Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 21; Rose v. Dole, 945 F.2d 1331 (6th Cir. 1991). Further, since there is no constitutional right to post-conviction counsel, and the state had no duty to appoint such counsel, equitable tolling also does not extend to a situation of attorney error. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(i) ; Sandvik v. United States, 177 F.3d 1269 (11th Cir. 1999). The State asserts that acceptance of petitioner’s argument in this case would punish Florida for voluntarily choosing to provide counsel. Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 28.


The Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Florida will depend on its reading of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 2244 . It may decide to read the language of §2244(d)(2) narrowly in accordance with the State’s view, and determine that “pending” refers only to a case pending review in the state courts. If so, Lawrence’s case will not be heard in federal court and his convictions will stand. On the other hand, the Court may decide to read the language broadly, in line with Lawrence’s argument, and determine that “pending,” when read in congruence with the concept of “finality” in §2244(d)(1), can in fact include a petition for certiorari. If this were the case, Lawrence would likely get his day in federal court, and his habeas corpus petition would be reviewed.

The outcome of this case will affect AEDPA’s purpose in furthering the principles of “comity, finality, and federalism.” Brief of the States at 3; Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 420, 436 (2000). AEDPA’s tolling provision promotes the exhaustion of state remedies by protecting a state prisoner's ability later to apply for federal habeas relief while state remedies are being pursued. Brief of the States at 3. By tolling the limitation period only during the pursuit of state remedies and not federal review, this provision protects the interest of finality by providing litigants with a powerful incentive to exhaust all available state remedies before proceeding in the lower federal courts. Id. at 3-4. The position advocated by Lawrence extends AEDPA’s statute of limitations without respect to either the purpose of AEDPA’s tolling provision or its interest in finality. Id. at 1. Also, it would defeat the purpose of AEDPA by allowing the presentation of federal claims to a federal court to toll the time for presenting the very same federal claims to other, arguably more appropriate, federal courts. Id. at 8.

This case also implicates notions of fairness. Florida formally acknowledged that problems arising from the appointment of registry counsel to represent capitally-sentenced defendants in post-conviction proceedings may require equitable tolling. Brief of the American Civil Liberties Union at 11. The Florida Supreme Court tolled the state’s own one-year deadline for filing state post-conviction motions for capital defendants including Lawrence. Id .; In re Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.851 & 3.850, 719 So.2d 869, app. B (Fla. 1998). However, the Florida Supreme Court has no power to toll AEDPA, as that is up to the federal courts. Brief of the American Civil Liberties Union at 12. If the Supreme Court does not extend the same exception to Lawrence as the Florida Supreme Court did, he will lose his opportunity to have his case heard in federal court. Id . Habeas petitioners like Lawrence may be deprived of equitable tolling because they detrimentally relied on the misrepresentations of their state-appointed attorneys. Id . at 14-15.


The resolution of Lawrence v. Florida will determine the availability of habeas corpus relief for indigent criminal defendants with assigned counsel. Additionally, it will clarify the starting point for the one-year time limit for filing habeas petitions so that, in the future, fewer limits will be missed due to complicated appellate proceedings. Once the circuit split has been resolved and the statute of limitations is clarified, this important point of appellate procedure will be clarified and faster movements through the criminal justice system will be facilitated.

Written by:

Robin M. Davis

Khara Ashlynn Tusa