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Ex parte Speckman

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

September 20, 2017




          Alcala, J.

         In this opinion, we explain our rationale for denying a motion to dismiss filed by Steve Herbert Speckman, applicant. Applicant's motion seeks dismissal of his Article 11.07 habeas application at a late stage in the proceedings after the habeas court has made findings of fact and conclusions of law recommending that relief be denied, and he seeks that dismissal without prejudice so that he may later refile his application. In response to applicant's motion, this Court filed and set this case to set forth general guidelines for resolving late-stage motions to dismiss without prejudice. We conclude that, in general, an Article 11.07 habeas applicant seeking a late-stage dismissal of his application without prejudice should show good cause, including an explanation about his reasons for believing that an alternate course of action such as amending or supplementing the application would be inadequate. Although we deny applicant's instant motion to dismiss, because he filed his motion without the benefit of this opinion, we will stay our resolution of his application for thirty days so as to permit him the opportunity to file a new motion to dismiss.

         I. Background

         In 2004, applicant pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child.[1] He was placed on deferred adjudication community supervision. In 2013, applicant's community supervision was revoked, and the trial court adjudicated him guilty and sentenced him to thirty years' imprisonment. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment and sentence. See Speckman v. State, Nos. 07-13-00232-CR, 07-13-00233-CR, 2014 WL 2191997, at *2 (Tex. App.-Amarillo May 23, 2014) (mem. op., not designated for publication).

         After his direct appeal, applicant filed an Article 11.07 application for post-conviction habeas relief in which he presented various claims alleging actual innocence, trial-court errors, failure by the State to disclose exculpatory evidence, and ineffective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel. In response to the allegations, the habeas court entered an order designating issues, and it ordered trial counsel to provide an affidavit. No live evidentiary hearing was held. After it received trial counsel's affidavit, the habeas court adopted the State's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, and it recommended that relief be denied. Applicant subsequently filed various documents in response to the habeas court's findings and conclusions, including a motion to reopen the fact finding proceedings, a motion for an evidentiary hearing, and a document purporting to raise supplemental grounds and arguments in support of relief. The habeas court forwarded the application to this Court. After this Court received the application but before this Court adjudicated applicant's habeas claims, applicant filed a motion to dismiss his application without prejudice. Applicant's reasons for moving for dismissal were that the application had been "pled improperly, " the "real issues were not developed, " and the issues "have been misconstrued."

         This Court filed and set this case to determine whether to grant applicant's late-stage motion to dismiss without prejudice and to explain the rationale underlying our decision. Specifically, we filed and set this case to discuss whether this type of motion should be subject to a rebuttable presumption of unreasonableness that must be overcome by the applicant before the motion may be granted. We further set out to explain the availability of suitable alternatives to dismissal that might allow an applicant to cure some defect or deficiency in his earlier pleadings while his application remains pending.[2] We requested and received briefs from the parties on these issues.[3]

         II. In General, Absent Good Cause, this Court Will Deny a Late-Stage Motion to Dismiss Without Prejudice

         This Court has historically permitted Article 11.07 habeas applicants to voluntarily dismiss their applications without prejudice under limited circumstances, but none of our opinions have ever addressed the rationale for granting or denying such motions. The question before us, therefore, is one of first impression. As we explain more fully below, Article 11.07 late-stage motions to dismiss without prejudice will, in general, be denied in the absence of good cause for the dismissal. Because no statute or rule directly addresses the question before us in the instant case, this Court's procedures for resolving motions to dismiss in this context have been developed by weighing competing policy considerations, such as those presented by the State and applicant in their briefs to this Court.

         The State suggests that the primary interests at stake in this case are society's interest in the finality of convictions and preservation of judicial resources. We agree that these are important considerations that weigh heavily against liberally permitting late-stage dismissals without a showing of good cause. It is clear from the statutory language in Article 11.07 that the Legislature has crafted a scheme that, while intended to permit each applicant one full and fair opportunity to pursue his post-conviction claims, is also designed to prevent perpetual litigation of cases on habeas. Section four of Article 11.07 provides that this Court may not consider the merits of a subsequent habeas application filed after final disposition of an initial application challenging the same conviction unless the applicant can demonstrate the existence of previously unavailable facts or law or his actual innocence. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 11.07, § 4. We have observed that this statutory provision was enacted by the Legislature as a means of protecting the State's substantial interest in the finality of its convictions. Ex parte Sledge, 391 S.W.3d 104, 109 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). To liberally permit late-stage dismissals without prejudice after a large portion of the habeas proceedings has already occurred is largely inconsistent with the Legislature's enactment of a procedural scheme envisioning a single bite at the habeas apple that fully and finally resolves all habeas claims. Further, liberally permitting late-stage dismissals could result in considerable wasted judicial resources. Even though the habeas proceedings are not concluded until this Court decides whether to grant or deny relief, prior to that point in time the habeas court has already expended a significant amount of judicial resources by reviewing evidence, making findings of fact and conclusions of law, and making a recommendation to this Court regarding the merits of an applicant's claims. Liberally permitting an applicant to discontinue his habeas litigation at that late stage without prejudice so that he may later refile the application, without any showing of good cause, would defeat the Legislature's efforts at creating an efficient system for the resolution of habeas complaints.

         We also agree with the State that permitting late-stage dismissals may encourage premature habeas applications that should not have been filed until after they had been fully researched and developed. This Court has previously explained that an initial Article 11.07 application should present all possible claims for relief and should be filed only after an applicant has fully researched and developed all of his claims. See Ex parte Torres, 943 S.W.2d 469, 474 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997). Moreover, as the State suggests, were we to liberally permit late-stage dismissals without any showing of good cause, that procedural tactic could be misused by an applicant as a means of discovery of the State's response to his claims and of the habeas court's view of his claims, which he could then use to reformulate his position to attempt to circumvent those positions. Thus, given all of these legitimate concerns, we agree with the State that public policy in favor of the finality of convictions and other considerations, in general, weigh in favor of denying motions to dismiss without prejudice in these types of cases.

         Although we agree with the vast majority of the State's arguments, we disagree with its suggestion that we should apply a rebuttable presumption of unreasonableness to all late-stage motions for dismissal and require applicants to overcome that presumption before their motions may be granted. The term "rebuttable presumption" has a precise legal meaning, and applying that term here would appear to erect an overly rigid barrier for habeas litigants to overcome in order to have their motions granted.[4] As we explain more fully below, given that many habeas applicants proceed pro se, we conclude that a more flexible standard is appropriate so that we may fully weigh all of the competing interests at play in each particular case.[5] We decline to impose a rebuttable presumption of unreasonableness, which would provide little, if any, benefit beyond the consideration of a general rule against late-stage dismissals, and which could be improperly misconstrued as erecting an inflexible presumption against dismissals, even when good cause is shown under the particular facts of the case.

         We briefly address applicant's arguments in opposition to this Court's adoption of a general rule against late-stage dismissals without prejudice. Applicant contends that, as the party bringing the habeas action, he is the master of his own complaint and may freely seek to dismiss that action. He cites Texas civil law in support of his position that a litigant has "inherent power" to dismiss his case.[6] With respect to this argument, we observe that this Court has held that habeas corpus is primarily a criminal proceeding and that the rules of civil procedure ordinarily do not apply. Ex parte Smith, 444 S.W.3d 661, 669 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014) (citing Ex parte Rieck, 144 S.W.3d 510, 516 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004)). In any event, even were we to accept applicant's suggestion that civil principles might apply in this context, we note that even in civil law there are limitations upon a plaintiff's ability to dismiss his complaint without prejudice at a late stage of the proceedings. See Epps v. Fowler, 351 S.W.3d 862, 868 (Tex. 2011) ("In Texas, plaintiffs may nonsuit at any time before introducing all of their evidence other than rebuttal evidence.") (citing Tex.R.Civ.P. 162). Accordingly we are not persuaded by applicant's argument that civil principles compel us to freely permit late-stage dismissal without prejudice under these circumstances.

         Applicant also argues that this Court lacks authority to create a procedural rule that would infringe upon his substantive rights as a habeas litigant.[7] But applicant does not identify any substantive right that is infringed upon by our adoption of this rule. In the absence of any authority to suggest otherwise, we conclude that we may adopt procedural rules such as the instant one that are consistent with the efficient exercise of our jurisdiction over habeas cases. See Tex. Const. art. V, § 5(c); State v. Johnson, 821 S.W.2d 609, 612 (Tex. Crim. App. 1991) (a court's broad range of inherent powers are those ...

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