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Armando Guerrero v. D.K. Sisto

March 25, 2011


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


Petitioner, Armando Guerrero, a state petitioner proceeding pro se, has filed an Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Guerrero is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections, incarcerated at the California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville, California. Respondent has filed an answer, and Guerrero has filed a traverse.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY The proceedings arose out of a May 2004 incident during which Guerrero assaulted his girlfriend, Rebekah Vela, menaced her with a sharpened screwdriver and pistol and then handcuffed her to a bed rail, and a separate September 2004 incident during which Guerrero struck Ms. Vela for coming home too late. After a court trial, Guerrero was convicted of the following: assault with a deadly weapon; two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm; two counts of willful infliction of corporal injury upon a spouse with an enhancement for the "personal infliction of great bodily injury under circumstances of domestic violence" with regard to one of the counts; and, battery with serious bodily injury. With respect to the last two convictions, the court found that Guerrero had committed the offenses while released from custody on a primary offense within the meaning of California Penal Code § 12022.7(e). Additionally, Guerrero admitted that he had suffered a prior serious felony conviction within the meaning of California's Three Strikes Law. Guerrero was sentenced to an aggregate prison term of 16 years, 4 months.

Guerrero timely appealed his conviction and on March 26, 2007, the California Court of Appeal, Third District, upheld his conviction and sentence. On October 10, 2007, Guerrero filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Sacramento County Superior Court, which denied the petition in a reasoned opinion on October 31, 2010. On November 20, 2007, Guerrero filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the California Court of Appeal, Third District, which denied the petition on November 29, 2007. On December 26, 2007, Guerrero filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, which denied the petition on February 20, 2008. On July 8, 2008, Guerrero filed his Petition for a writ of habeas corpus with this Court, and on August 29, 2008, he filed the instant Amended Petition. In his Amended Petition, Guerrero raises two grounds: Ineffective assistance of trial counsel and ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Respondent concedes that Guerrero has properly exhausted these claims in state court.


Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), 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."*fn1 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."*fn2 The holding must also be intended to 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.*fn3 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.'"*fn4 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.*fn5 The Supreme Court has made clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing that the state court determination was incorrect.*fn6 "[A]bsent a specific constitutional violation, federal habeas corpus review of trial error is limited to whether the error 'so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.'"*fn7 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 outcome.*fn8 Because state court judgments of conviction and sentence carry a presumption of finality and legality, the petitioner has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she merits habeas relief.*fn9

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn10 State appellate court decisions that affirm a lower court's opinion without explanation are presumed to have adopted the reasoning of the lower court.*fn11 Under California's unique habeas procedure, a defendant who is denied habeas relief in the superior court files a new original petition for relief in the court of appeal. If denied relief by the court of appeal, the defendant has the option of either filing a new original petition for habeas relief or a petition for review of the court of appeal's denial in the California Supreme Court.*fn12 This is considered as the functional equivalent of the appeal process.*fn13 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.*fn14 This presumption applies to state trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn15

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 presume 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.*fn16 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.*fn17

"[A]lthough we independently review the record, we still defer to the state court's ultimate decision."*fn18

Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

In his first ground for relief, Guerrero alleges that his trial counsel, Russell Miller, was ineffective for failing to properly investigate his case and for improperly advising him to forgo a jury trial on the fact that he had a prior felony conviction. Under Strickland, to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, Guerrero must show both that his counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced his defense.*fn19 A deficient performance is one in which counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.*fn20 Guerrero must show that defense counsel's representation was not within the range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases, and that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's ineffectiveness, the result would have been different.*fn21 An analysis that focuses "solely on mere outcome determination, without attention to whether the result of the proceeding was fundamentally unfair or unreliable, is defective."*fn22

Strickland and its progeny do not mandate that this Court act as a "Monday morning quarterback" in reviewing tactical decisions.*fn23 Indeed, the Supreme Court admonished in Strickland:

Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential. It is all too tempting for a defendant to second-guess counsel's assistance after conviction or adverse sentence, and it is all too easy for a court, examining counsel's defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable. A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time. Because of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the ...

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