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Tinsley v. Yates

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 30, 2019

SHERRY YATES, Respondent.


          Madeline Cox Arleo, District Judge.


         This matter has been opened to the Court by Petitioner's ("Petitioner" or "R.T.") filing of a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons explained in this Opinion, the Court denies the Petition and denies a certificate of appealability.


         Petitioner is currently civilly committed to the Special Treatment Unit ("STU") in Avenel, New Jersey, pursuant to New Jersey's Sexually Violent Predator Act ("SVPA"), N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24 et seq.

         On May 3, 2010, the State filed a petition for civil commitment pursuant to the SVPA, supported by clinical certificates of two psychiatrists identifying R.T. as a sexually violent predator ("SVP"). At the time the State filed the petition for civil commitment, R.T. was serving a four-year sentence in New Jersey for a 2008 conviction for third degree theft, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2.[2] Because the theft conviction is not an enumerated offense under N.J.S.A. 30:4-17.26(a), the State of New Jersey relied upon Pennsylvania and California convictions for sexual offenses.

         On May 10, 2010, the trial court entered an order temporarily committing R.T. to the New Jersey Special Treatment Unit ("STU"), and scheduled a date for the final hearing. After a number of delays, the court held a final hearing on December 18, 2013, at which R.T. appeared. The State relied on expert reports and testimony from Dean DeCrisce, M.D. and Nicole Paolillo, Psy.D.. R.T. testified but did not present an expert. R.T. Following the close of evidence, Judge Philip Freedman issued an oral decision committing R.T. to the STU.

         On appeal, Petitioner argued "that the court lacked jurisdiction to order his commitment, the State failed to sustain its burden of proof, he was denied a timely hearing, and he should have been assigned new counsel." See In re Civil Commitment of R. T., 2016 WL 674215, at * 1, 4-7 ( N.J.Super. App. Div. Feb. 19, 2016). The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and affirmed Petitioner's civil commitment. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification. (Exhibit LL.)

         Petitioner submitted the instant habeas petition for filing on July 1, 2016. (ECF No. 1, Pet. at 17.). The Petition raises four grounds for relief. Ground One of the Petition raises the issues he raised to the Appellate Division on direct appeal. Ground Two of the Petition asserts that the Appellate Division and New Jersey Supreme Court improperly denied his motion to supplement the record with an expert report. Grounds Three and Four assert that Petitioner should be released from confinement because the state did not have enough evidence to commit him.[3] Petitioner subsequently filed a brief in support of the Petition (ECF No. 3), [4] and the Court provided Petitioner with a notice pursuant to Mason v. Myers, 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000). Petitioner also submitted motions for the appointment of counsel (ECF Nos. 6-8), and on March 31, 2017, the Court denied without prejudice the motion for counsel, [5] and directed Respondents to answer the Petition. (ECF No. 10.) On May 15, 2017, Respondents filed their answer, and Petitioner filed his reply on May 22, 2017.[6] (ECF Nos. 14-15.)


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), the district court "shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." The petitioner has the burden of establishing his entitlement to relief for each claim presented in his petition based upon the record that was before the state court. See Eley v. Erickson, 712 F.3d 837, 846 (3d Cir. 2013); see also Parker v. Matthews, 132 S.Ct. 2148, 2151 (2012). Under the statute, as amended by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2244 ("AEDPA"), district courts are required to give great deference to the determinations of the state trial and appellate courts. See Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 772-73 (2010). Where a claim has been adjudicated on the merits by the state courts, the district court shall not grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus unless the state court adjudication

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) (2). Federal law is clearly established for the purposes of the statute where it is clearly expressed in "only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta" of the opinions of the United States Supreme Court. See Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015). "When reviewing state criminal convictions on collateral review, federal judges are required to afford state courts due respect by overturning their decisions only when there could be no reasonable dispute that they were wrong." Id. Where a petitioner challenges an allegedly erroneous factual determination of the state courts, "a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct [and t]he applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         a. Overview of SVPA

         The New Jersey SVPA provides a means for the state to civilly commit individuals who have been convicted of certain classes of sexually violent offenses and therefore qualify as "sexually violent predators." N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.26. Under the act, a person qualifies as an SVP where he

has been convicted, adjudicated delinquent or found not guilty by reason of insanity for commission of a sexually violent offense, or has been charged with a sexually violent offense but found to be incompetent to stand trial, and suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility for control, care and treatment.

N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.26(b).

         When it appears that a person may meet the criteria of an SVP, an "agency with jurisdiction," such as the New Jersey Department of Corrections, provides notice to the New Jersey Attorney General at least ninety days before the anticipated release of this individual. Greenfield v. Dep 't of Corr., 2011 WL 3203730, at *6 (D.N.J. July 27, 2011) (citing N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 30:4-27.26; 3:4-27.27(a)(1)). Upon receiving such notice, the Attorney General, if he concludes that the interests of public safety warrant involuntary civil commitment of the individual involved, may bring an action for commitment under the SVPA. Id. Under the statute, such an involuntary commitment procedure may follow from the release of an offender from jail so long as the offender suffers from a requisite mental abnormality or personality disorder and the offender is therefore likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure treatment facility. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 30:4-27.26; 30:4-27.28; 30:4-27.32(a).

         To initiate the commitment of an individual being released from imprisonment, the Attorney General must file a petition for commitment, supported by "two clinical certifications, one of which must be from a psychiatrist who has examined the individual no more than three days before the submission of the petition for commitment." Greenfield, 2011 WL 3203730 at *6 (citing N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 30:4-27.26, 30:4-27.28). Upon the filing of such a petition, the trial court conducts a temporary commitment hearing where that court examines the supporting certificates and must determine if probable cause exists to believe that the committee qualifies as a sexually violent predator under the act. Id. If the court finds probable cause, it issues a temporary commitment order pending a final hearing, which is normally scheduled within twenty days of the initial hearing. Id; N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 30:4-27.28(f), 30:4-27.29(a).

         In advance of the final hearing, the committee is provided with copies of the clinical certificates and their supporting documents, the temporary commitment order, and a statement of the committee's rights at the final hearing. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 30:4-27.30(a). Those rights include the right to counsel and the appointment of counsel if the committee is indigent, the right to be present during the final hearing absent prior conduct which would prevent the court from reasonably conducting the hearing in the committee's presence, the right to present evidence, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to a hearing in camera. See Greenfield, 2011 WL 3203730 at *6 (citing N.J. Stat. Ann. § 30:4-27.31). Following the appointment of counsel where necessary, the final hearing is conducted. Id. At that hearing, the trial court hears evidence, including expert testimony from psychiatrists and members of the treatment team who have treated the committee during his temporary commitment who have within the last five days prior to the hearing conducted a personal examination of the committee. Id. If the court, following the hearing, concludes by clear and convincing evidence that the committee qualifies as an SVP, the court issues an order involuntarily committing the SVP to the STU. Id. The SVP may thereafter appeal the court's order or petition for discharge from the STU at any time, and by statute will receive annual review hearings at which the state is again required to prove by clear and convincing evidence that commitment as the SVP is warranted. Id. (citing N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 30:4-27.35, 30:4-27.36). Although an individual's commitment as an SVP often follows the end of a criminal sentence, such commitment is civil, and not criminal in nature. See Aruanno v. Hayman, 384 Fed.Appx. 144, 150 (3d Cir.); cert, denied, 562 U.S. 1115 (2010); see also Ortiz v. Yates, 2018 WL 1773543, at *4 (D.N.J. Apr. 12, 2018)(explaining same).

         b. Petitioner's Claims for Relief

         i. Issues Raised to the Appellate Division on Appeal (Grounds One, Three & Four)

         In Grounds One, Three and Four of the Petition, Petitioner raises the issues he raised on appeal to the Appellate Division. On appeal, Petitioner argued "that the court lacked jurisdiction to order his commitment, the State failed to sustain its burden of proof, he was denied a timely hearing, and he should have been assigned new counsel." R.T., 2016 WL 674215, at *1, 4-7. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and affirmed Petitioner's civil commitment. Id. For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that the Appellate Division did not unreasonably apply clearly established federal law in rejecting Petitioner's claims for relief, and will deny habeas relief on Grounds One, Three, and Four.

         Petitioner has a lengthy sexual and non-sexual criminal history in several states, which is recounted in detail in the Appellate Division opinion denying his appeal of his commitment order. See Id. at *1-2. The Court summarizes the relevant history below.

         At age sixteen, R.T. was charged in Philadelphia with rape and carrying a concealed weapon. He was placed in a juvenile diagnostic center and later on probation. (Exhibit N, at N157, N176.)

         In December 1983, at age twenty-eight, R.T. was arrested in Alameda, California, and charged with assault to commit rape, battery with serious bodily injury, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance. (Exhibit N, at N054, N157, N176.) The charges were dismissed. (Id. at N054.)

         In January 1984, R.T. was arrested in San Francisco and charged with committing lewd acts with a child under age fourteen, oral copulation, false imprisonment, and rape by force. (Exhibit N, at N054, N157, N176.) Ultimately, the charges were downgraded to battery, and defendant received a ninety-day suspended sentence and was placed on probation for eighteen months. (Id.)

         Defendant was arrested again in San Francisco in July 1984. Following a jury trial, defendant was convicted of two counts of rape, oral copulation, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, and two counts of genital penetration by a foreign object. (Exhibit N, at N054-55, N157, N176.) He was sentenced to a six-year term of imprisonment. (Id.)

         Defendant was incarcerated in California from 1984 until 1993. During that period, he accrued ten disciplinary infractions. Following his release, R.T. incurred a series of parole violations and new charges. As a result, R.T. was intermittently incarcerated at various times between 1994 and 1998. See R.T., 2016 WL 674215, at *2.

         Notably, after R.T. absconded in May 1997, he was arrested for car theft in New Jersey in August 1997. (Exhibit N, at N044, N046.) He was then returned to California where he remained in custody until he "maxed out" in February 1998. (Exhibit N, at N051.)

         In May 1999, R.T. was again charged in San Francisco with seven counts of annoying and molesting a child, stalking, and threatening. (Exhibit N at N055, N158, N177-78.) R.T. was arrested for drug sales in January 2000. The next month he was charged with failing to register as a sex offender. He again failed to register as a sex offender in Las Vegas in February 2002, and in March he was charged as a fugitive from justice. R. T., 2016 WL 674215, at *2.

         R.T. resurfaced in Philadelphia where, in May 2004, he was arrested and charged with rape, assault, unlawful restraint, reckless endangerment, false imprisonment, sexual assault, and indecent exposure. R.T. denied the ...

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