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Gustavo Zavala v. James A. Yates

April 4, 2011


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


Petitioner, Gustavo Zavala, a state petitioner proceeding pro se, has filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. When he originally filed his Petition, Zavala was in the custody of the California Department of Corrections, incarcerated at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California, however his current incarceration status and location are unknown to this Court.*fn1 Respondent has filed an answer, and Zavala has not filed a traverse.


The underlying charges in this case arose out of three separate incidents: 1) On February 26, 2004, law enforcement responded to a call of a man sleeping in a truck and found Zavala. They also found a baggy containing 4.5 grams of methamphetamine in the truck; 2) on March 30, 2006, Zavala was stopped for a traffic violation during which the officer discovered 3.6 grams of methamphetamine, a scale with methamphetamine residue and another baggie with

0.04 grams of methamphetamine; 3) on August 17, 2006, Zavala was found in the possession of a stolen car and eventually confessed to stealing the vehicle. Each of these incidents resulted in charges being filed against Zavala.

Zavala was appointed counsel ("appointed counsel") and on October 3, 2006, he pled no contest to one count of transportation of methamphetamine and one count of theft or unauthorized use of a vehicle and he admitted violating probation. In exchange, the prosecution dismissed the remaining counts and cases against him and agreed to a sentencing lid of four years, four months in state prison.

After entering his plea and retaining new counsel ("retained counsel"), Zavala filed a motion to withdraw his plea on April 5, 2007. Although Zavala was given written advisement of his rights before he entered his plea, he argued that the oral advisement of rights had been inadequate. The court denied the motion and sentenced defendant to state prison for an aggregate term of four years four months. Zavala appealed his conviction, and on October 9, 2008, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. Zavala did not file a petition for review with the California Supreme Court.

On November 14, 2008, Zavala filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court which was denied on January 14, 2009. On March 19, 2009, Zavala filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in this Court. In his Petition to this Court, Zavala raises seven claims for relief:

1. The state court improperly denied Zavala's claim that his confession to the police was involuntary;

2. The state court improperly denied Zavala's claim that the witness identification was unconstitutionally suggestive, that there was a failure to disclose the informant, and that the police falsified their report;

3. The state court erred by denying Zavala's claim that he was mentally incompetent, and, therefore, unable to voluntarily and intelligently enter a plea;

4. Zavala's plea agreement was coerced by his appointed counsel;

5. Zavala's appointed counsel was ineffective for advising him to enter a plea of no contest;

6. Zavala's retained counsel was ineffective for failing to request a certificate of probable cause to challenge the validity of his plea; and,

7. Zavala's appointed counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him of the immigration consequences of his plea agreement.

Respondent concedes that all of Zavala's claims for relief are properly exhausted; while Respondent claims that Zavala's third, fourth, and fifth claims are procedurally barred by adequate and independent state grounds, in the discussion of each of these claims Respondent has chosen to waive the procedural bar.


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."*fn2 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."*fn3 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.*fn4 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.'"*fn5 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.*fn6 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.*fn7 "[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.'"*fn8 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.*fn9 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.*fn10

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn11 State appellate court decisions that affirm a lower court's opinion without explanation are presumed to have adopted the reasoning of the lower court.*fn12 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.*fn13 This is considered as the functional equivalent of the appeal process.*fn14 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.*fn15 This presumption applies to state trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn16

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 on the merits and perform an independent review of the record to ascertain whether the state court decision was objectively unreasonable.*fn17 In so doing, because it is not clear that it did not so do, the Court presumes that the state court decided the claim on the merits and the decision rested on federal grounds, giving the presumed decision the same deference as a reasoned decision.*fn18 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. ...

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