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David Jon Dillion v. Melissa Lea

January 4, 2012



Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding in propria persona with an application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges a 2007 judgment of conviction entered against him in the Shasta County Superior Court on four counts of arson, with an enhancement for use of an accelerant as to one of the arson counts. He seeks relief on the grounds that: (1) his statements to police should not have been admitted at his trial because they were involuntary and coerced and were obtained in violation of Miranda v. Arizona; and (2) his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. Upon careful consideration of the record and the applicable law, and for the reasons set forth below, petitioner's application for habeas corpus relief is denied.

I. Factual Background*fn2

Here we again confront the elusive and slippery idea of just when an interrogation becomes custodial. We must decide whether defendant David Jon Dillion, an arson suspect, was in custody when he confessed to setting five fires in his neighborhood before receiving his Miranda advisements.*fn3 We conclude that because the interrogating officers told him before, and many times during, his examination that he was free to go and did not employ otherwise impermissibly coercive techniques, he was not in custody at the time he dribbled out his admissions. We also conclude that his confession was voluntary. We affirm.


A Redding patrol officer observed the 24-year-old defendant standing in his bathrobe, somewhat inebriated at 2:30 a.m., watching a fire burn. He was about 50 feet from where a vegetation fire had been set 2 weeks earlier. Defendant told the officer he had been renovating a restaurant before it burned in a fire, and he had been at a bar earlier that evening a block away from another fire. He mentioned he was a seasonal firefighter. The officer invited defendant to accompany him to the police investigations office for an interview but assured him he had no obligation to do so and was not required to answer any questions or to make any statements. Defendant said he did not mind because he wanted to get the matter cleared. The officer was not comfortable having defendant drive because he had been drinking. Defendant got dressed and rode with the officer in a patrol car. He was never handcuffed.

The investigations office was at a mall, not the police station, and it looked like an office building. Two plainclothes interrogators began to question defendant about 4:30 a.m. in a small interview room after once again assuring him he was free to go at any time and would be provided a ride home. The door was not locked, but it did get stuck and one of the interrogators believed it was locked. The interrogators questioned defendant for about one hour 41 minutes before he confessed to any of the arsons. They started with friendly chatter and became increasingly accusatory. They asked him if he thought he was a person capable of setting a fire or if he had ever given serious thought to starting one and, if so, how he might do it. When he repeatedly denied their accusations, they asked him if he would be willing to take a polygraph examination. The interrogators also confronted defendant with some of the evidence they believed demonstrated his culpability, including a possible eyewitness identification. Defendant responded, "I probably should've asked at the beginning of the interview, but am I being considered a suspect?" One of the examiners coyly stated, "Well . . . I would say you're a good witness, okay? Um ... hmm ... no." At various times during the examination, they offered him coffee, water, or soda. He opted for a cigarette and used the restroom unsupervised during several breaks.

Some time later, one of the interrogators positioned himself closer to the exit of the room. After a short break, they advised defendant that based on their considerable experience, they believed he was responsible for the fires. Defendant continued to deny his complicity and requested an attorney. He was told again he was not under arrest and remained free to leave. He made several remarks about his girlfriend and how mad she would be when he returned home.

The interrogators continued to confront and cajole defendant, pointing to the unlikely proposition that he just happened to be in close proximity to five different fires within a two-week period. They appealed to his concern for his 16-month-old baby. Finally, they warned him that "we're gonna have to be a little more stern with ya." Shortly thereafter, defendant confessed to setting a brush fire, and within approximately 21 minutes he admitted to 4 more fires.

Only then was he given his Miranda warnings. During additional examination, he again confessed to perpetrating each of the five fires. The interrogation ended at approximately 7:47 a.m., about three hours after it began.

The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress his confessions. He thereafter entered a slow plea of guilty to four of six counts and to the enhancement that he used an accelerant as to one count. (Pen.Code, §§ 451, subd. (c), 451.1, subd. (a)(5).) The court sentenced defendant to the stipulated term of 13 years in state prison. Defendant appeals the pretrial determination to admit his confessions.

Resp.'s Lodg. Doc. 2 at 1-4.

II. Analysis

A. Standards for a Writ of Habeas Corpus

An application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under a judgment of a state court can be granted only for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). A federal writ is not available for alleged error in the interpretation or application of state law. See Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S.___, ___, 131 S. Ct. 13, 16 (2010); Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); Park v. California, 202 F.3d 1146, 1149 (9th Cir. 2000).

Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) sets forth the following standards for granting federal habeas corpus relief:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the 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.

For purposes of applying § 2254(d)(1), "clearly established federal law" consists of holdings of the United States Supreme Court at the time of the state court decision. Stanley v. Cullen, 633 F.3d 852, 859 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)). Nonetheless, "circuit court precedent may be persuasive in determining what law is clearly established and whether a state court applied that law unreasonably." Stanley, 633 F.3d at 859 (quoting Maxwell v. Roe, 606 F.3d 561, 567 (9th Cir. 2010))

A state court decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if it applies a rule contradicting a holding of the Supreme Court or reaches a result different from Supreme Court precedent on "materially indistinguishable" facts. Price v. Vincent, 538 U.S. 634, 640 (2003). Under the "unreasonable application" clause of § 2254(d)(1), a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions, but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.*fn4

Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003); Williams, 529 U.S. at 413; Chia v. Cambra, 360 F.3d 997, 1002 (9th Cir. 2004). In this regard, a federal habeas court "may not issue the writ simply because that 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." Williams, 529 U.S. at 412. See also Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007); Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 75 (it is "not enough that a federal habeas court, in its independent review of the legal question, is left with a 'firm conviction' that the state court was 'erroneous.'"). "A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as 'fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S.___,___,131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). Accordingly, "[a]s a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington,131 S. Ct. at 786-87.

If the state court's decision does not meet the criteria set forth in § 2254(d), a reviewing court must conduct a de novo review of a habeas petitioner's claims. Delgadillo v. Woodford, 527 F.3d 919, 925 (9th Cir. 2008); see also Frantz v. Hazey, 533 F.3d 724, 735 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc) ("[I]t is now clear both that we may not grant habeas relief simply because of § 2254(d)(1) error and that, if there is such error, we must decide the habeas petition by considering de novo the constitutional issues raised.").

The court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Stanley, 633 F.3d at 859; Robinson v. Ignacio, 360 F.3d 1044, 1055 (9th Cir. 2004). If the last reasoned state court decision adopts or substantially incorporates the reasoning from a previous state court decision, this court may consider both decisions to ascertain the reasoning of the last decision. Edwards v. Lamarque, 475 F.3d 1121, 1126 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc). "When a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary." Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 784-85. This presumption may be overcome by a showing "there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court's decision is more likely." Id. at 785 (citing Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991)). Where the state court reaches a decision on the merits but provides no reasoning to support its conclusion, a federal habeas court independently reviews the record to determine whether habeas corpus relief is available under § 2254(d). Stanley, 633 F.3d at 860; Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003). "Independent review of the record is not de novo review of the constitutional issue, but rather, the only method by which we can determine whether a silent state court decision is objectively unreasonable." Himes, 336 F.3d at 853. Where no reasoned decision is available, the habeas petitioner still has the burden of "showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief." Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 784.

When it is clear, however, that a state court has not reached the merits of a petitioner's claim, the deferential standard set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) does not apply and a federal habeas court must review the claim de novo. Stanley, 633 F.3d at 860; Reynoso v. Giurbino, 462 F.3d 1099, 1109 (9th Cir. 2006); Nulph v. Cook, 333 F.3d 1052, 1056 (9th Cir. 2003).

B. Petitioner's ...

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