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Roberts v. Clark

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


December 15, 2009

JAMES PATRICK ROBERTS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KEN CLARK, WARDEN, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION

Petitioner James Patrick Roberts, a state prisoner appearing pro se, has filed a petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Roberts is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, California. Respondent has filed his answer. Roberts has not replied.

I. BACKGROUND/PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

In September 2005 the District Attorney filed a Complaint charging Roberts with two counts of second degree robbery (Cal. Penal Code Sec. 211), one count of promoting the criminal conduct of a street gang (Cal. Penal Code Sec. 186.22(a)), one count of dissuading a witness (Cal. Penal Code Sec. 136.1(c)(1)) and one count of receiving stolen property (Cal. Penal Code Sec. 496(a)).*fn1

Pursuant to a plea agreement, Roberts waived his right to a preliminary hearing and pled no contest to one count of second degree robbery (Cal. Penal Code Sec. 211).*fn2 Through counsel, Roberts stipulated that "while [he] was engaged in this conduct, he was a member of a street gang and did this [robbery] for the benefit of the street gang."*fn3 Roberts also entered a special waiver, known in California as a "Harvey*fn4 Waiver," which would allow the trial court to consider his gang involvement for the purposes of sentencing.*fn5 The prosecution dismissed the remaining counts in exchange for Roberts' plea.*fn6

The trial court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Roberts to the upper term*fn7 of five years. In considering facts in mitigation and aggravation, the court found that: 1) Roberts' prior convictions as an adult were of increasing seriousness; 2) Roberts served a prior prison term; 3) Roberts was on parole when the offense was committed; 4) Roberts' prior performance on grants of probation and parole were unsatisfactory.*fn8 In light of these findings, the court held that the appropriate disposition was the upper term of five years.*fn9 Pursuant to Roberts' "Harvey Waiver," the court considered Roberts' gang involvement and ordered him to register as a gang member (Cal. Penal Code Sec. 186.30) when he was released from prison.*fn10

Roberts appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeals, Third District, which affirmed the judgment.*fn11 Roberts then filed a Petition for Review in the California Supreme Court. The sole issue raised in Roberts' petition was whether the imposition of an upper term sentence violated Roberts' Sixth Amendment Right to a Jury Trial and his Fourteenth Amendment right of Due Process.*fn12 The California Supreme Court denied review.*fn13 Roberts has not sought post-conviction relief through the state courts.

Roberts filed this timely petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his petition, Roberts raises two grounds upon which he claims relief: 1) The trial court erred in imposing a gang registration requirement under Cal. Penal Code Section 186.30 because there was insufficient evidence to support it; 2) The trial court violated Roberts' Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial jury by sentencing him to the upper term based on facts that were neither admitted by Roberts nor determined to be true beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury.*fn14 Respondent has not raised any affirmative defenses.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Because Roberts filed his petition after April 24, 1996, it is governed by the standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Consequently, this Court cannot grant relief unless the decision of the state court was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" at the time the state court renders its decision or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn15 The Supreme Court has explained that "clearly established Federal law" in § 2254(d)(1) "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court] as of the time of the relevant state-court decision."*fn16 The holding must also be binding upon the states; that is, the decision must be based upon constitutional grounds, not on the supervisory power of the Supreme Court over federal courts.*fn17 Thus, where holdings of the Supreme Court regarding the issue presented on habeas review are lacking, "it cannot be said that the state court 'unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.'"*fn18 When a claim falls under the "unreasonable application" prong, a state court's application of Supreme Court precedent must be objectively unreasonable, not just incorrect or erroneous.*fn19 The Supreme Court has made clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing the state court determination was incorrect.*fn20 In a federal habeas proceeding, the standard under which this Court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state court criminal trial is whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.*fn21

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court,*fn22 which in this case was that of the California Court of Appeal.*fn23 Under AEDPA, the state court's findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption by clear and convincing evidence.*fn24

When there is no reasoned state court decision denying an issue presented to the state court and raised in a federal habeas petition, this Court must assume that the state court decided all the issues presented to it and perform an independent review of the record to ascertain whether the state court decision was objectively unreasonable.*fn25 The scope of this review is for clear error of the state court ruling on the petition:

[A]lthough we cannot undertake our review by analyzing the basis for the state court's decision, we can view it through the "objectively reasonable" lens ground by Williams .. . . Federal habeas review is not de novo when the state court does not supply reasoning for its decision, but an independent review of the record is required to determine whether the state court clearly erred in its application of controlling federal law. Only by that examination may we determine whether the state court's decision was objectively reasonable.*fn26

"[A]lthough we independently review the record, we still defer to the state court's ultimate decision."*fn27

To the extent that Petitioner raises issues of the proper application of state law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding. It is a fundamental precept of dual federalism that the states possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law.*fn28 A fundamental principle of our federal system is "that a state court's interpretation of state law, including one announced on direct appeal of the challenged conviction, binds a federal court sitting in habeas corpus."*fn29 This principle applied to federal habeas review of state convictions long before AEDPA.*fn30 A federal court errs if it interprets a state legal doctrine in a manner that directly conflicts with the state supreme court's interpretation of the law.*fn31 It does not matter that the state supreme court's statement of the law was dictum if it is perfectly clear and unambiguous.*fn32

A determination of state law by a state intermediate appellate court is also binding in a federal habeas action.*fn33 This is especially true where the highest court in the state has denied review of the lower court's decision.*fn34

A petitioner may not transform a state-law issue into a federal one by simply asserting a violation of Due Process.*fn35 Nor may a federal court issue a habeas writ based upon a perceived error of state law, unless the error is sufficiently egregious to amount to a denial of Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn36

III. DISCUSSION

GROUND I

Roberts claims the trial court erred in imposing a gang registration requirement because there was insufficient evidence to support it.*fn37 Roberts acknowledges that, as part of the factual stipulation in support of his plea, he admitted: "while [he] engaged in [the criminal] conduct, he was a member of a street gang and [committed the crime] for the benefit of the street gang."*fn38 Despite this admission, Roberts claims that there is no evidentiary support that the "street gang" Roberts was a member of was a "criminal street gang" for purposes of requiring gang registration under section 186.22(f).

Exhaustion of state remedies requires the petitioner to fairly present federal claims to the state courts in order to give the state the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights.*fn39 A petitioner fairly presents a claim to the state court for purposes of satisfying the exhaustion requirement if he presents the claim: (1) to the proper forum, (2) through the proper vehicle, and (3) by providing the proper factual and legal basis for the claim.*fn40

A petitioner must alert the state courts to the fact that he is asserting a federal claim in order to fairly present the legal basis of the claim.*fn41 In the Ninth Circuit, a petitioner must make the federal basis of the claim explicit either by referencing specific provisions of the federal Constitution or statutes, or citing to federal case law.*fn42 Because Roberts did not raise this ground in his Petition for Review in the California Supreme Court, this claim has not been properly exhausted in the state courts and is not properly before this Court.

Despite Roberts' failure to exhaust this particular ground, this Court may deny a habeas claim on the merits, the failure to exhaust notwithstanding, when it is clear that the petition does not raise a colorable federal claim.*fn43

As mentioned above, issues regarding the proper application of state law are beyond the purview of this court. "A state court's interpretation of state law, including one announced on direct appeal of the challenged conviction, binds a federal court sitting in habeas corpus."*fn44 Accordingly, because the California Court of Appeals, Third District, found "the trial court did not err in imposing a gang registration requirement,"*fn45 this Court is estopped from hearing this claim. Roberts is not entitled to relief on his first ground.

GROUND II

Roberts asserts that the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial jury by sentencing him to the upper term based on facts that were neither admitted to by appellant nor determined to be true by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

Under the line of United States Supreme Court decisions beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey*fn46 and culminating in Cunningham v. California,*fn47 the constitutional requirement of a jury trial and proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies only to a fact that is legally essential to the punishment, that is, to any fact that exposes a defendant to a greater potential sentence than is only authorized by the jury's verdict or an admission by the defendant himself or herself.

Under California's Determinate Sentencing Law ("DSL"), "three terms of imprisonment are specified for most offenses."*fn48 The statute defining the offense generally prescribes an upper term, a middle term and a lower term.*fn49 At the time of Roberts' offense, California Penal Code Section 1170(b) required a sentencing court to impose the middle term "unless there [were] circumstances in aggravation or mitigation of the crime." In Cunningham, the Supreme Court held that the presumptive middle term, not the upper term, was the "relevant statutory maximum" that could be imposed, absent additional findings of fact by the jury.*fn50 Therefore, after Cunningham, a California judge could only impose an upper term sentence based on aggravating facts found by the jury or admitted by the defendant.*fn51 Applying this logic, Roberts argues his upper term sentence was not appropriate because he did not admit to his previous conviction nor did a jury make a factual finding on the matter. Roberts' argument is without merit.

The law is clear that the imposition of an upper term sentence based upon a prior conviction is a well established exception to Apprendi and its progeny.*fn52 Specifically, a defendant's criminal history need not be admitted to by the defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.*fn53

Furthermore, under California law the existence of a single aggravating circumstance is legally sufficient to make the defendant eligible for the upper term.*fn54 While the court may make factual findings with respect to additional aggravating circumstances, these findings, themselves, do not further raise the authorized sentence beyond the upper term.*fn55 Accordingly, judicial fact finding on those additional aggravating circumstances is not unconstitutional.*fn56

When it imposed the upper term, the trial court found, among other things, that, "[Roberts'] prior convictions as an adult were of increasing seriousness."*fn57 The trial court never expressly found that Roberts "had prior convictions." Nevertheless, the court's reference to "prior convictions of increasing seriousness" effectively contains a finding that Roberts, indeed, had prior convictions. On direct appeal, the California Court of Appeals held the trial court's reference to prior convictions was sufficient to sustain Roberts' upper term sentence based on the "prior conviction" exception to Apprendi. It stated, "[t]he rule of Blakely does not apply to the use of prior convictions to increase the penalty for a crime. Since one valid factor in aggravation is sufficient to expose defendant to the upper term, the trial court's consideration of other factors, in addition to defendant's prior convictions, to impose the upper term did not violate the rule of Blakely."*fn58 Roberts has not submitted any evidence demonstrating that this finding of fact by the appellate court is incorrect.*fn59 Accordingly, this Court must give deference to the state court finding that the trial court's reference to "prior convictions" included a factual finding that Roberts had been previously convicted.

Roberts' argument is also meritless under Kessee v. Mendoza-Powers.*fn60 While the trial court may not have expressly found that Roberts had prior convictions, it did expressly find that Roberts was on parole when he committed the crime.*fn61 The Ninth Circuit is clear that this finding of fact does not fall within the Apprendi "prior conviction" exception.*fn62 Under Ninth Circuit law, this fact would need to be found by a jury.*fn63 However, there is no Supreme Court case that squarely addresses the question whether certain facts fall within a "prior conviction" exception to Apprendi. As a result, other sister Circuits have chosen to expand the "prior conviction" exception to encompass a finding that a defendant was under court supervision when he or she committed a subsequent crime.*fn64 Kessee noted that as long as a state court applied an interpretation that was consistent with another Circuit's interpretation of Apprendi, it could not be said "that the state court's interpretation was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent."*fn65 In the present case, the trial court found that the defendant was under court supervision when he committed the crime.*fn66 According to Tenth Circuit jurisprudence, this fact falls under the "prior conviction" exception, as a subsidiary finding. As noted above, the existence of a single aggravating circumstance is legally sufficient to make the defendant eligible for the upper term.*fn67 Thus, "it cannot be said that the state court 'unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law'" by basing its decision to sentence Roberts to an upper term on a finding that he was on parole at the time he committed the robbery.*fn68

Finally, this Court concludes that any error that could have occurred during sentencing is harmless. According to Washington v. Recuenco,*fn69 failure to submit a sentencing factor to the jury is not a structural error, and is subject to harmless error review.*fn70 "[T]he standard for determining whether habeas relief must be granted is whether the . . . error had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict."*fn71 Certainly any failure to explicitly find that Roberts had multiple prior convictions did not affect the jury finding, as both of Roberts' grounds deal with post-conviction proceedings. Additionally, the trial judge's finding that Roberts' convictions as an adult were of increasing seriousness,*fn72 necessarily included a finding that Roberts had indeed been convicted as an adult. Finally, after reviewing Roberts' file, it is clear to this Court that the trial judge would find "prior convictions" were the case to be remanded. Accordingly, any error that could have been committed by the trial court during the sentencing proceeding would have been harmless. Roberts is not entitled to relief on his second ground.

IV. CONCLUSION and ORDER

Roberts is not entitled to relief under any ground raised in the petition. Accordingly,

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT the Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED THAT this Court declines to issue a Certificate of Appealability.*fn73 Any further request for a Certificate of Appealability must be addressed to the Court of Appeals.*fn74

The Clerk of the Court to enter judgment accordingly.


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