On Appeal from the District Court for the District of New Jersey (No. 05-cv-04776) District Judge: Honorable Garrett E. Brown, Jr.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge
Argued September 11, 2008
Before: SLOVITER, FUENTES, and ALDISERT, Circuit Judges.
Louis P. Urcinoli was convicted of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and attempted murder by a New Jersey jury in 1996. The District Court on its own motion dismissed his subsequent habeas petition because it contained claims that had not been properly exhausted in state court. Although Urcinoli returned to state court to exhaust those claims, by the time he filed a second habeas petition in federal court, the one-year statute of limitations for such petitions had lapsed. The District Court accordingly dismissed the petition as untimely, refusing to equitably toll the limitations period.
Although the District Court's initial dismissal of Urcinoli's petition was not improper under prevailing law, we conclude that the one-year statute of limitations should have been equitably tolled to allow him to bring those claims in his second petition. Therefore, we will vacate the District Court's dismissal and remand for further proceedings.*fn1
A detailed timeline of Urcinoli's journey through state and federal court will illuminate the basis for our decision. Urcinoli was convicted of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and attempted murder in New Jersey state court on December 13, 1996. He was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment plus twenty years. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed the conviction and sentence and the New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification. Thereafter, Urcinoli pursued a pro se motion for post-conviction relief in the New Jersey courts, a process that ended with the affirmance of Urcinoli's conviction and sentence on May 22, 2002. On August 5, 2002, Urcinoli filed a pro se habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, raising eight alleged constitutional violations.
Although neither Urcinoli nor the state respondents had raised the issue of exhaustion, the District Court independently decided the issue without notice or a hearing. The Court determined that Urcinoli had not exhausted five of his eight claims by properly presenting them to the New Jersey courts as federal constitutional claims and thus had an invalid "mixed" petition.*fn2 Finding that Urcinoli could still utilize New Jersey's post-conviction relief process to exhaust those claims, the District Court dismissed the petition without prejudice on October 31, 2003. By that time, fourteen months after Urcinoli had filed his § 2254 petition, the one-year limitations period for filing a subsequent petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") had passed.
In its opinion, the District Court noted:
Those prisoners who misunderstand this [total exhaustion] requirement and submit mixed petitions nevertheless are entitled to resubmit a petition with only exhausted claims or to exhaust the remainder of their claims. . . . However, a prisoner who resubmits the petition after deleting the unexhausted claims will generally be barred from later submitting the deleted claims in a second or successive petition after they have been exhausted.
(App. 69 n.7 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).) The Court did not offer Urcinoli the option of deleting the unexhausted claims from his petition and proceeding on the ones that had been exhausted before it decided to dismiss. Urcinoli did not attempt to refile his petition with only the three exhausted claims, nor did he ask the District Court to reconsider its decision.
On December 13, 2003, six weeks after the District Court dismissed his petition, Urcinoli filed a second motion for post-conviction relief in state court. He received a final denial of that motion from the New Jersey Supreme Court on September 12, 2005. Approximately two weeks later, on September 29, 2005, Urcinoli filed a second ...