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Combs v. Helton

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky Southern Division, London

August 20, 2019

JOHN C. COMBS, Petitioner,


          Candace J. Smith United States Magistrate Judge.

         On January 25, 2019, Petitioner John C. Combs (“Combs” or “Petitioner'), an inmate currently incarcerated in the Little Sandy Correctional Complex, Sandy Hook, Kentucky, filed a pro se Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.[1] (See R. 1). Consistent with local practice, this matter has been referred to the undersigned for consideration and preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). Having reviewed Petitioner's filing, and finding Petitioner's presentation to be non-cognizable and untimely, it will be recommended that Combs's § 2254 Petition be dismissed.


         Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts provides for a federal district court to conduct a preliminary review prior to serving a respondent with a copy of a petition and requiring a response. Rule 4 specifically instructs trial courts that “[i]f it plainly appears from the petition and any attached exhibits that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court, the judge must dismiss the petition and direct the clerk to notify the petitioner.” Because preliminary review reveals that Combs's Petition presents a claim which is not a cognizable basis for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and because any other claims arguably presented in the Petition would be untimely, Rule 4 mandates that the Petition be dismissed without requiring Respondent to formally respond.[2]


         On January 25, 2010, a Perry County Grand Jury indicted Combs on counts of murder under KRS § 507.020, first-degree burglary under KRS § 511.020, tampering with physical evidence under KRS § 524.100, and terroristic threatening in the third-degree under KRS § 508.080.[3] Combs ultimately entered a plea of guilty to one count of murder under KRS § 507.020, and on October 18, 2013, he was sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment. (See R. 1, at 1; R. 1-2, at 2). There is no indication that Combs filed an appeal of his judgment.[4]

         Petitioner states he filed a motion for collateral relief pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Criminal Procedure (“RCr”) 11.42 on January 4, 2016 (See R. 1-2, at 9, 11), [5] which was denied by the Perry County Circuit Court on April 11, 2016 (see id. at 2). Petitioner filed an appeal on August 25, 2016, which appeal was dismissed by the Kentucky Court of Appeals on June 21, 2017, as untimely. (Id. at 16-17). There is no indication that Combs filed a petition for review with the Kentucky Supreme Court. The Kentucky Court of Appeals docket sheet for case number 2017-CA-001455, which was provided by Combs, shows that Petitioner also filed a motion for belated appeal with the Kentucky Court of Appeals on September 14, 2017, which was denied on December 15, 2017.

         On January 25, 2019, Combs filed a pro se Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 with this Court. (R. 1). In his Petition, Combs asserts that he filed a motion for collateral relief pursuant to RCr 11.42 on January 4, 2016, in the Perry County Circuit Court. (See R. 1-2, at 9, 11). The Perry Circuit Court docket reflects that a status hearing on the motion occurred on March 31, 2016, and the motion was subsequently denied by the trial court in an April 11, 2016 order. Combs asserts that “the hearing he was brought to was [a] [d]enial of his RCr 11.42 Motion, ” and that he did not receive the state court's order denying his RCr 11.42 motion until after his time to appeal had expired.[6] (See R. 1, at 5; R. 1-1, at 2). As a result, Combs alleges that he was “stripped” of “his ability to appeal [the court's denial] in a timely matter” and “his ability to adequately present his post-conviction claims” because he did not receive the Court's denial in a timely matter. (R. 1, at 5). He now seeks an Order from this Court to reinstate his RCr 11.42 motion “for [a] normal proceeding” and to “dismiss[] the time bar” upon which the Court of Appeals based its dismissal of Combs's appeal of his RCr 11.42 motion.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Petitioner's challenge to the state court's dismissal as untimely of his appeal of the denial of his RCr 11.42 motion is non-cognizable.

         Combs asserts one ground as a basis for habeas relief. He alleges that because he did not timely receive the state court's denial of his motion for collateral relief pursuant to RCr 11.42, he was stripped of his ability to timely appeal that decision to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. In essence, Combs's Petition seeks to challenge the dismissal of his RCr 11.42 appeal by the Kentucky Court of Appeals as untimely and asks this Court to reinstate his RCr 11.42 motion for a “normal proceeding.” (See id., at 5-6, 15; R. 1-2 at 16-17). But the problem for Combs is that any alleged error in his state collateral proceeding is not cognizable in a petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         Federal courts review state prisoners' petitions for relief under § 2254 only for violations of “the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Thus, “errors in application of state law . . . are usually not cognizable in federal habeas corpus.” Bey v. Bagley, 500 F.3d 514, 519 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Walker v. Engle, 703 F.2d 959, 962 (6th Cir. 1983)); see also Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991) (“It is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state court determinations on state law questions.”).

         Courts in the Sixth Circuit have consistently held that “errors in state post-conviction proceedings do not provide a basis for federal habeas corpus relief” and thus are “not subject to review under the federal habeas corpus statute[.]” Haynie v. Buchanan, No. 2:18-cv-1781, 2019 WL 295503, at *3 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 23, 2019) (recommending dismissal of petition on preliminary review, noting that petitioner's assertion that the state court “improperly refused to provide him an evidentiary hearing prior to the dismissal of his petition for post-conviction relief” was not a cognizable claim for federal habeas corpus relief), report and recommendation adopted by 2:18-cv-1781, 2019 WL 926031 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 26, 2019); also see Small v. Harry, No. 2:17-cv-12803, 2017 WL 4883635, at *2 (E.D. Mich. Oct. 30, 2017) (“Petitioner's claim that the Michigan courts wrongfully denied him post-conviction relief is non-cognizable.”); Hager v. Parker, No. 7:08-cv-183-KKC, 2010 WL 897260, at *6 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 9, 2010) (“[E]rrors in post conviction proceedings are outside the scope of federal habeas corpus review . . . Errors allegedly committed during Rule 11.42 proceedings clearly fall within this prohibition . . . .”) (citing Cress v. Palmer, 484 F.3d 844, 853 (6th Cir. 2007); Kirby v. Dutton, 794 F.2d 245, 246-47 (6th Cir. 1986)). “The reason for this is that the states have no constitutional obligation to provide post-conviction remedies.” Small, 2017 WL 4883635, at *2; also see Blevins v. White, No. 10-cv-07-GFVT-CJS, 2014 WL 7004976, at *20 (E.D. Ky. Dec. 10, 2014) (“. . . the writ of habeas corpus is not an appropriate tool for challenging errors or deficiencies in state-post-conviction proceedings. Rather, the writ is reserved for constitutional errors underlying the conviction itself.”) (quoting Sherley v. Parker, No. 99-5535, 2000 WL 1141425, at *6 (6th Cir. Aug. 8, 2000)).

         The Sixth Circuit has emphasized that “the essence of habeas corpus is an attack by a person in custody upon the legality of that custody, and that the traditional function of the writ is to secure release from illegal custody.” Kirby, 794 F.2d at 246 (quoting Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 484 (1973)). In other words, a petition brought under § 2254 “must directly dispute the fact or duration of confinement.” Id. at 248. Accordingly, even if a claim challenging a state post-conviction proceeding were “resolved in a petitioner's favor, [it] would not ‘result [in] . . . release or a reduction in . . . time to be served or in any other way affect his detention because [the Court] would not be reviewing any matter directly pertaining to his detention.” Small, 2017 WL 4883635, at *2 (quoting Cress, 484 F.3d at 853). Therefore, claims “which address collateral matters and not the underlying ...

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