Plaintiff Cannot Show Violation of Federal Rights Behind Denial of DNA Testing Request – Van Poyck v. McCollum

July 20, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

As a Miami-Dade criminal defense attorney, I’m in favor of more access to exculpatory evidence when defendants are facing the death penalty or other very serious penalties. So I was disappointed in the ruling by the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Van Poyck v. McCollum, denying William Van Poyck a chance to request access to DNA testing related to his murder conviction. Van Poyck was already in prison when he and another inmate attempted to escape, leading one of them to shoot a guard to death. Van Poyck was convicted of the guard’s murder and sentenced to death, and this was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. In 2003, he filed a lawsuit seeking the clothes he and the other inmate wore during the murder, to perform DNA testing he claims would show the other inmate pulled the trigger. After this was denied, he re-filed in federal court and his claim was denied for failure to state a valid claim.

The Eleventh first looked at whether Van Poyck had waited too long to file. The state argued that the statute of limitations, or deadline to sue, should have started running when DNA testing became widely available. The court disagreed, saying Florida’s four-year statute of limitations for personal injury applies. Under Florida law, the statute of limitations begins running when the facts supporting the case become apparent. The court said this was when the Florida state DNA lawsuit was exhausted. It specifically said, however, that it was ruling only on this case and not making a general statement about when plaintiffs should sue or whether denying evidence is a continuing tort.

It next turned to the meat of the issue, whether Van Poyck had a valid claim. In order to bring a claim, it noted, he needs to show that Florida officials denied a federally protected right when denying him access to the DNA evidence. Van Poyck argued that he should have a due process right to the information. However, the Eleventh pointed out, a substantive due process right to DNA testing was expressly rejected by the Supreme Court in 2009’s District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne. Van Poyck may have a procedural due process right to the testing, the court said, but he did not adequately make that argument in his appeal. Thus, the Eleventh upheld the trial court’s decision to deny access to DNA testing.

Decisions like this are disappointing to south Florida criminal defense lawyers like me. The Eleventh barely had to look into whether Van Poyck’s due process rights were violated, because the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent in Osborne is binding. That’s true regardless of whether any individual court thinks the Osborne decision was a wise one. For criminal defendants in a similar position, this means it’s vital for Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorneys to structure appeals in ways that allow appeals judges to decide in their favor on other grounds (when possible).

If you’re accused of a crime in south Florida, you could face jail or prison, loss of your driver’s license or professional license, steep fines and more. To speak with an experienced defense attorney about your case and your options, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A. for a free consultation. You can reach us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email anytime.

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