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ELLISON v. KNOWLES

United States District Court, Northern District of California


April 21, 2003

RALPH ELLISON, PETITIONER, VS. MIKE KNOWLES, WARDEN, RESPONDENT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles R. Breyer, United States District Judge

ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR A WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

Petitioner, a state prisoner at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, seeks a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 arguing that his indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life in state prison for drug possession constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In light of the Supreme Court's recent decisions in Lockyer v. Andrade, 123 S.Ct. 1166 (2003), and Ewing v. California, 123 S.Ct. 1179 (2003), the petition for a writ of habeas corpus must be denied.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

On May 18, 2000, petitioner pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance, being under the influence of a controlled substance and possession of paraphernalia for smoking a controlled substance in the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Santa Clara. He also admitted that he had six prior serious felony convictions that qualified as strikes under California's Three Strikes Law and that he had served three prior prison terms.

On October 24, 2000, the trial court denied petitioner's request to dismiss the prior serious felony convictions and sentenced him to 25 years to life pursuant to the Three Strikes Law.

On February 28, 2002, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of conviction and, on May 15, 2002, the Supreme Court of California denied review.

Petitioner then filed the instant federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Per order filed on September 25, 2002, the court found that the petition, liberally construed, stated a cognizable claim under § 2254 and ordered respondent to show cause why a writ of habeas corpus should not be granted. Respondent has filed an answer to the order to show cause and petitioner has filed a traverse.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The California Court of Appeal summarized the facts of the case as follows:

On November 21, 1999, police officers responded to a reported drug overdose at Julian Street Inn. They found defendant lying on a bathroom floor next to a syringe, a soda can bottom, and .14 grams of heroin. He had a belt around his neck. Defendant was 63 years old.
People v. Ellison, No. H022222, slip op. at 2 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2002) (Resp't Ex. F).

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review This court may entertain a petition 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." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

The writ may not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court's adjudication of the claim: "(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." Id. § 2254(d).

"Under the `contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000). "Under the `reasonable application clause' a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. at 413.

"[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because the court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable." Id. at 411. A federal habeas court making the "unreasonable application" inquiry should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was "objectively unreasonable." Id. at 409.

The only definitive source of clearly established federal law under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) is in the holdings (as opposed to the dicta) of the Supreme Court as of the time of the state court decision. Id. at 412; Clark v. Murphy, 317 F.3d 1038, 1044 (9th Cir. 2003). While circuit law may be "persuasive authority" for purposes of determining whether a state court decision is an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent, only the Supreme Court's holdings are binding on the state courts and only those holdings need be "reasonably" applied. Id.

B. Analysis

Petitioner claims that his indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life in state prison constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment because it is grossly disproportionate to his drug possession crimes. Unfortunately for petitioner, the claim is without merit because the California Court of Appeal's decision affirming his sentence was not "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

The California Court of Appeal considered and rejected petitioner's Eighth Amendment claim as follows:

Defendant next contends that imposition of the 25-year-to-life term constitutes cruel and/or unusual punishment in violation of the state and federal Constitutions. (U.S. Const., 8th Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) He contends that the imposition of the enhancement constitutes cruel or unusual punishment under People v. Dillon (1983) 34 Cal.3d 441, 478, because it is grossly disproportionate to his culpability.
The proscription against cruel and unusual punishment is violated when a penalty is "so disproportionate to the crime for which it is inflicted that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity." (In re Lynch (1972) 8 Cal.3d 410, 424.) "Whether a particular punishment is disproportionate to the offense is, of course, a question of degree. The choice of fitting and proper penalties is not an exact science, but a legislative skill involving an appraisal of the evils to be corrected, the weighing of practical alternatives, consideration of relevant policy factors, and responsiveness to the public will; in appropriate cases, some leeway of experimentation may also be permissible. The judiciary, accordingly, should not interfere in this process unless a statute prescribes a penalty `out of all proportion to the offense' [citations], i.e., so severe in relation to the crime as to violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment." (Id. at pp. 423-424.) "Only in the rarest of cases could a court declare that the length of a sentence mandated by the Legislature is unconstitutionally excessive. [Citations.]" (People v. Martinez (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 489, 494.)
A defendant bears the burden of establishing that the punishment prescribed for his offense is unconstitutional. (People v. King (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 567, 572.)
The California Supreme Court has "identified three techniques used by the courts to focus the inquiry: (1) an examination of `the nature of the offense and/or the offender, with particular regard to the degree of danger both present to society'; (2) a comparison of the challenged penalty with those imposed in the same jurisdiction for more serious crimes; and (3) a comparison of the challenged penalty with those imposed for the same offense in different jurisdictions." (In re Reed (1983) 33 Cal. 914, 923, quoting In re Lynch, supra, 8 Cal.3d at pp. 425-429.)
Here defendant had an extensive criminal history. He had prior felony convictions and 47 misdemeanor convictions. He was committed to state prison on numerous occasions. Each time that he was released on parole, he was recommitted within a short period of time. "He is a frequent repeat offender who seemingly has not learned from his past incarceration." (People v. Martinez, supra, 71 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1510-1511.) Defendant focuses on the fact that "his problems" have stemmed from his drug addiction. "However, drug addiction is not necessarily regarded as a mitigating factor when a criminal defendant has a long-term problem and seems unwilling to pursue treatment. (Compare People v. Simpson (1979) 90 Cal.App.3d 919, 926-928 with People v. Regalado (1980) 108 Cal.App.3d 531, 538-540 and People v. Reyes (1987) 195 Cal.App.3d 957, 960-964, and cases there cited.)" (Id. at p. 1511.) Defendant also maintains that his current offense was not dangerous. But, defendant "was punished not just for his current offense but for his recidivism. Recidivism justifies the imposition of longer sentences for subsequent offenses. [Citation.] The imposition of a 25-year-to-life term for a recidivist offender, like appellant, convicted of a nonviolent, nonserious felony but with at least 2 prior convictions for violent or serious felonies is not grossly disproportionate to the crime." (People v. Cooper (1996) 43 Cal.App.4th 815, 825.) Thus, after considering the nature of the offense and the offender, we conclude that imposition of the 25-years-to-life prison term does not "`shock the conscience'" on this record. (In re Lynch, supra, 8 Cal.3d at p. 424.)
Defendant contends that his sentence is disproportionate in comparison to recidivist statutes in other jurisdictions. He also contends that other recidivist statutes require an offense of equal severity before enhancement.
In comparing the punishment for the same offense in other jurisdictions, we acknowledge that California's Three Strikes scheme is among the harshest in the nation. However, that does not in itself prove that it is cruel and unusual punishment. Nothing in the law requires California "to march in lockstep with other states in fashioning a penal code." (People v. Martinez, supra, 71 Cal.App.4th at p. 1516.) Accordingly, we conclude that the punishment in the instant case does not violate the constitutional proscription against cruel and unusual punishment.
People v. Ellison, No. H022222, slip op. at 7-10 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2002).

The Supreme Court recently made clear that "the only relevant clearly established law amenable to the `contrary to' or `unreasonable application of' framework [in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)] is the gross disproportionality principle, the precise contours of which are unclear, applicable only in the `exceedingly rare' and `extreme' case." Lockyer v. Andrade, 123 S.Ct. 1166, 1173 (2003) (citations omitted). The Court also made clear that in conducting a gross disproportionality review, "we must place on the scales not only [petitioner's] current felon[ies], but also his . . . history of felony recidivism." Ewing v. California, 123 S.Ct. 1179, 1189-90 (2003).

The California Court of Appeal's decision affirming petitioner's sentence was not "contrary to" clearly established Supreme Court precedent. The state court properly relied on petitioner's extensive history of felony recidivism in determining that his sentence was not grossly disproportionate. See id.; Andrade, 123 S.Ct. 1173-74; Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 276 (1980).*fn1 And, in light of the nature and extent of petitioner's history of felony recidivism, which includes prior convictions for escape by a felon, first degree burglary, battery and assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury, it certainly cannot be said that it was "objectively unreasonable" for the California Court of Appeal to affirm petitioner's sentence. Cf. Andrade, 123 S.Ct. at 1167 (upholding sentence of two consecutive terms of 25 years to life for recidivist convicted of stealing videotapes worth $150); Ewing, 123 S.Ct. at 1189-90 (upholding sentence of 25 years to life for recidivist convicted of shoplifting three golf clubs worth $1,200). Petitioner is not entitled to federal habeas relief on his Eighth Amendment claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

The clerk shall enter judgment in favor of respondent and close the file.

SO ORDERED.


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