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Nahu Rodriquez v. Gary Swarthout


February 9, 2012


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


Nahu Rodriquez, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Rodriquez is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the California State Prison, Solano. Respondent has answered, and Rodriquez has replied.


Following his conviction upon the entry of a guilty plea to one count of attempted murder under California Penal Code §§ 664/187 with enhancements for the use of a firearm under California Penal Code §§ 12022d and 12022.7, in March 1996 Rodriquez was sentenced in the Stanislaus County Superior Court to a prison term of life with the possibility of parole plus four years. Rodriquez does not challenge his conviction and sentence in this proceedings.

In October 2008 Rodriquez was charged in a Rules Violation Report ("RVR") of possession of contraband, specifically a cell phone and charger in violation of prison regulations.*fn1

After a hearing before a Senior Hearing Officer ("SHO"), Rodriquez was found guilty and assessed as thirty-day loss of good-time credits. Upon completion of the administrative appeals process,*fn2 Rodriquez timely filed a petition for habeas relief in the Solano County Court, which denied Rodriquez's petition in an unreported, reasoned decision. The California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, summarily denied Rodriquez's habeas petition, citing Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445 (1985), and In re Zepeda, 47 Cal. Rptr. 3d 172 (2006). Rodriquez's subsequent petition to the California Supreme Court was summarily denied without opinion or citation to authority on February 24, 2010. Rodriquez timely filed his Petition for relief in this Court on May 17, 2010.

The facts underlying Rodriquez's conviction, as stated in the RVR:

On 10-29-06, at approximately 2315 hours, while conducting my duties as Facility IV S & E, as directed by Facility IV Sergeant Stubbs, I conducted a search of Inmate Rodriquez (K00152), bed area 21-0-5L. I found a Metro PCS Cellphone with a charger. The cellphone and charger was discovered on the corner of 21-0-5L bunk against the wall.*fn3


In his Petition, Rodriquez raises a single ground: that the finding that the cell phone was his is not supported by any evidence. Respondent raises no affirmative defense.*fn4


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."*fn5 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."*fn6 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.*fn7 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.'"*fn8 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."*fn9 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.*fn10 "[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.'"*fn11 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.*fn12 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.*fn13

The Supreme Court recently underscored the magnitude of the deference required: As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. Cf. Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 664, 116 S.Ct. 2333, 135 L.Ed.2d 827 (1996) (discussing AEDPA's "modified res judicata rule" under § 2244). It preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with this Court's precedents. It goes no farther. Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a "guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems," not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n.5, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment). As 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.*fn14

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the "last reasoned decision" by the state court.*fn15 State appellate court decisions that summarily affirm a lower court's opinion without explanation are presumed to have adopted the reasoning of the lower court.*fn16 This Court gives the presumed decision of the state court the same AEDPA deference that it would give a reasoned decision of the state court.*fn17

Under California's unique habeas procedure, a prisoner 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.*fn18

This is considered as the functional equivalent of the appeal process.*fn19


A. Availability of Habeas Relief

Respondent previously moved to dismiss the Petition on the grounds that, because Rodriquez is serving an indeterminate term of life with the possibility of parole, under California law he is ineligible to earn good-time credits. Therefore, Respondent contended that the disciplinary action had no impact on Rodriquez's sentence and was not properly brought in a habeas proceeding.*fn20 This Court, adopting the Findings and Recommendations of the magistrate judge, denied the motion.*fn21 In his answer Respondent again raises the same issue. Under the law of the case doctrine a court is generally precluded from reconsidering an issue that has already been decided by the same court or a higher court in the same case.*fn22 The law of the case doctrine, however, is not a shackle without a key. As long as a district court retains jurisdiction over a case, it has inherent power to reconsider and modify an interlocutory order for sufficient cause.*fn23

That inherent power is not unfettered: a court may depart from the law of the case doctrine where: "(1) the decision is clearly erroneous and its enforcement would work a manifest injustice, (2) intervening controlling authority makes reconsideration appropriate, or (3) substantially different evidence was adduced at a subsequent trial."*fn24 Respondent has provided no basis for this Court to reconsider its previous Order.

B. Merits

At the conclusion of the disciplinary hearing, the SHO made the following findings: FINDINGS: Inmate found GUILTY of a Division F charge based upon a preponderance of the evidence which substantiates the charge of CCR §3006(c)(16), with the specific act of "CONTRABAND--POSS. OF A CELL PHONE." This evidence includes:

A. The Reporting Employee's Report, dated 10-129-08, authored by C/O

M. Shergill, which states in part: "I conducted a search of inmate Rodriquez (K-00152), be3d area 21-0-5L. I found a Metro PCS Cellphone with a charger. The cellphone and charger was discovered on the corner of the 21-0-5L bunks against the wall."

B. The SHO doesn't find inmate Lopez's testimony to be credible. Inmate Lopez stated he did not slide the phone down the wall until he saw the Officer's [sic] approaching. Inmate Lopez's bunk was in full view of Officer Shergill as he approached because the wall he claimed to have slid the phone down is approximately six inches below the top bunk. Inmate Lopez would have had to reach down below the bottom of his bunk in full view of the Officer to slide the phone and charger along the wall. The SHO doesn't find Inmate Lopez [sic] testimony credible that he only disposed of one of the phones he claimed to have in his possession when he saw the Officer's [sic] coming while maintaining possession of the second phone until he was searched.


Means anything that you have under your domain or control. The contraband was discovered on Rodriquez's bed, which was in his immediate control.*fn25

Rodriquez contends that, because his cell-mate admitted ownership of the cell phone and there was no direct evidence that the cell phone belonged to Rodriquez, there was insufficient evidence to support the SHO's finding. In particular, Rodriquez argues that the SHO failed to establish that: (1) Rodriquez's prints were on the phone; (2) Rodriquez's family phone number was on the call log; (3) Rodriquez was one of the inmates that Lopez was renting cell phones to;

(4) Lopez was not the sole owner of both cell phones, as Lopez admitted, with certainty and beyond a reasonable doubt; and (5) Lopez was not telling the truth with certainty and beyond a reasonable doubt that. The Solano County Court rejected Rodriquez's arguments, holding:

Petitioner has failed to state a prima facie case for relief on any of his claims. (People v, Duvall (1995) 9 Cal 4th 464, 475.) Petitioner argues insufficient evidence supports his finding of guilty. The Court must uphold the disciplinary guilt finding if some evidence supports it. (In re Zepeda (2006) 141 Cal App 4th 1493, 1498.) There is sufficient evidence supporting the finding of guilt.*fn26

The California Court of Appeal also denied Rodriquez relief without opinion, but cited Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445 (1985), in addition to In re Zepeda, 47 Cal. Rptr. 3d 172 (2006).*fn27

Rodriquez misperceives the role of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding challenging a prison disciplinary action. The applicable constitutional standard by which federal habeas courts are bound in reviewing state prisoner disciplinary findings is whether "there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the disciplinary board."*fn28

This standard does not require that the court independently assess the credibility of the witnesses or re-weigh the evidence.*fn29 Because a prison disciplinary proceeding "is not comparable to a criminal conviction, . . . neither the amount of evidence necessary to support such a conviction, . . . nor any other standard greater than some evidence applies in this context."*fn30

Here, Rodriquez's arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, there was sufficient evidence to establish constructive possession of the cell phone. Consequently this Court cannot say that the decisions of the California Courts were "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or were "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn31


Rodriquez is not entitled to relief.

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

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED THAT the Court declines to issue a Certificate of Appealability.*fn32 Any further request for a Certificate of Appealability must be addressed to the Court of Appeals.*fn33

The Clerk of the Court is to enter judgment accordingly.

James K. Singleton, Jr. J

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