Jose F. Lopez
State of MARYLAND
Barbera, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald [*] Bell JJ.
The equitable doctrine of laches bars litigation of a claim when there is unreasonable delay in its assertion and the delay results in prejudice to the opposing party. Laches derives from concerns similar to those that undergird statutes of limitations. Both devices – one a product of legislation, the other a development of the common law – are intended to set time limits on the assertion of claims. While their origin and operation as originally conceived were distinct, in modern times their operation has converged. This case concerns a convergence of the two in the context of a post-conviction proceeding.
Prior to 1995, the statute governing post-conviction proceedings allowed for the filing of a petition "at any time." That year, the General Assembly amended the statute to create a 10-year limitations period for post-conviction petitions. See Maryland Code, Criminal Procedure Article ("CP"), §7-103(b). In State v. Williamson, 408 Md. 269, 277, 969 A.2d 300, 305 (2009), this Court concluded that the 10-year limitations period did not apply to an individual sentenced before the effective date of the statute – October 1, 1995. The Court declined to consider whether such an individual could be barred from pursuing post-conviction remedies under the equitable doctrine of laches because the issue had not been preserved in that case. 408 Md. at 273 n. 4. That issue is now properly before the Court. In light of the language of the pre-1995 statute, its legislative history, and its contemporaneous construction by the Court of Special Appeals, we conclude that laches does not apply.
On February 24, 1986, a jury in Montgomery County convicted Petitioner Jose F. Lopez of attempted first degree rape, attempted robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon, and burglary. On March 3, 1986, Mr. Lopez pled guilty to two counts of first degree rape, one count of second degree rape, three counts of burglary, and one count of assault with intent to rape. The offenses arose out of series of burglaries and rapes in the Silver Spring area during 1985 and 1986 involving five different victims, three of whom were elderly women. Mr. Lopez was sentenced to consecutive life sentences for two of the offenses and concurrent sentences on the other charges.
On October 3, 2005, Mr. Lopez, unrepresented by counsel, filed a post-conviction petition covering both cases. In that petition, and an amended version of it filed six months later, he alleged, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel. The State responded to both the initial petition and its amendment, arguing that his claims were without merit and that, in any event, he had waived the right to raise them. In late 2007, Mr. Lopez came to be represented by the Office of the Public Defender, which filed a supplement to his petition. On November 25, 2008, the State filed an answer in which it expanded upon its prior arguments and, for the first time, argued that Mr. Lopez's petition should be denied on the ground of laches.
On December 11, 2008, a hearing was held before the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. The Circuit Court held that laches was available to the State as a defense to a post-conviction petition, and it denied the petition on that basis.
Mr. Lopez appealed that decision to the Court of Special Appeals. The intermediate appellate court agreed with the Circuit Court that laches was applicable in post-conviction proceedings. Nonetheless, the Court of Special Appeals found that the record was insufficiently developed for a finding that laches barred the petition in this case. It therefore vacated the judgment and remanded the matter to the Circuit Court for reconsideration. This Court granted certiorari to review the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.
Whether laches is an affirmative defense to a post-conviction petition is a question of law. Accordingly, we consider that question without according special deference to the holding of the Circuit Court. State v. Adams, 406 Md. 240, 255, 958 A.2d 295 (2008).
Post-Conviction Procedure Act
The Maryland Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act is codified at CP §7-101 et seq. In its current form, the Act contains a statute of limitations that provides that, in most cases, a post-conviction petition "may not be filed more than 10 years after the sentence was imposed." CP §7-103(b)(1). There is no dispute, however, that the 10-year period of limitations does not apply to Mr. Lopez's petition. To understand why, ...