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Leathan Renfrow v. J. A. Yates

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


May 7, 2012

LEATHAN RENFROW, PETITIONER,
v.
J. A. YATES, WARDEN, PLEASANT VALLEY STATE PRISON, RESPONDENT.

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

MEMORANDUM DECISION

Leathan Renfrow, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Renfrow is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the Pleasant Valley State Prison. Respondent has answered. Renfrow has not replied.

I. BACKGROUND/PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

In December 2002 Renfrow entered a negotiated plea in the Placer County Superior Court of no contest to assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury and admitted a great bodily injury ("GBI") enhancement under California Penal Code §§ 245(a)(1) and 12022.7. The trial court suspended imposition of sentence and placed Renfrow on formal probation. Renfrow did not appeal his conviction or sentence.

In May 2004, after Renfrow admitted violating a condition of probation, the trial court revoked probation, imposed the middle term of three years for the felony assault conviction, suspended execution of that sentence, and reinstated him on formal probation. The trial court did not mention the GBI enhancement. In December 2004 Renfrow admitted violating another condition of probation by possessing a controlled substance. The prosecutor agreed to a five-year disposition, low term [for the felony assault conviction] plus three years [for the GBI enhancement], for Renfrow's acknowledgment of guilt in this violation of probation. The trial court revoked probation, declined Renfrow's request to strike the GBI enhancement, and ordered the execution of an aggregate term of five years (two years for felony assault and three years for the enhancement). Renfrow timely appealed that decision and on October 26, 2005, the California Court of Appeal, Third District, affirmed in an unpublished decision.*fn1

Renfrow subsequently filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Placer County Superior Court, claiming the term of five years was an unlawful increase in the sentence that had been previously imposed and suspended.*fn2 The superior court held that the trial court had no jurisdiction to change the sentence of three years imposed and suspended after Renfrow's last violation of probation, and that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the five-year term. The superior court granted the petition for writ of habeas corpus, deemed the GBI enhancement to have been stricken, and ordered the clerk to prepare an amended abstract of judgment showing the correct sentence to be the imposition of the middle term of three years on Count One for violation of Penal Code § 245(a)(1). On appeal, the California Court of Appeal, Third District, reversed and remanded the matter to the Superior Court with directions to deny the writ.*fn3 The California Supreme Court summarily denied review on October 23, 2008. On June 8, 2009, Renfrow filed a petition for habeas relief in the California Supreme Court, which was summarily denied on July 8, 2009. Renfrow timely filed his Petition for relief in this Court on August 3, 2009.

II. GROUNDS RAISED/DEFENSES

In his Petition, Renfrow raises two grounds:*fn4 (1) the trial court's correction of the sentence, i.e., adding back in the GBI enhancement, violated his federal right of due process;*fn5 and

(2) counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this issue on appeal.*fn6 Respondent does not assert any affirmative defense.*fn7

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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."*fn8 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."*fn9 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.*fn10 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.'"*fn11 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."*fn12 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.*fn13 "[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.'"*fn14 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.*fn15 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.*fn16

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.*fn17

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the "last reasoned decision" by the state court.*fn18 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.*fn19 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.*fn20

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.*fn21

This is considered as the functional equivalent of the appeal process.*fn22 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.*fn23 This presumption applies to state-trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn24

A state court is not required to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to be "adjudicated on the merits."*fn25 When there is no reasoned state-court decision denying an issue presented to the state, "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."*fn26

"The presumption may be overcome when there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court's decision is more likely."*fn27 Where the presumption applies, this Court must perform an independent review of the record to ascertain whether the state-court decision was "objectively unreasonable."*fn28 In conducting an independent review of the record, this Court presumes that the relevant state-court decision rested on federal grounds,*fn29 giving that presumed decision the same deference as a reasoned decision.*fn30 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.*fn31

"[A]lthough we independently review the record, we still defer to the state court's ultimate decision."*fn32

IV. DISCUSSION

Ground 1: Correction of Sentence When Renfrow was initially sentenced, the trial court included a sentence on the GBI enhancement. In his first probation violation proceeding, the trial court mistakenly omitted the GBI enhancement. In the second probation violation proceeding the trial court corrected the earlier error and sentenced Renfrow on both the primary assault conviction and the GBI enhancement. Renfrow contends that, in correcting the sentence, the state court impermissibly increased his sentence in violation of due process. Although the state trial court agreed with

Renfrow in his state court habeas petition, the State argued on appeal that "the trial court's failure to have imposed or dismissed the GBI enhancement when it suspended execution of sentence and reinstated probation 'resulted in an unauthorized sentence which was properly corrected by the trial court at a later date.'"*fn33 The Court of Appeal agreed, holding:

The error in this case began when, in May 2004, the trial court imposed sentence, suspended its execution, and reinstated probation. The problem is the court imposed sentence only on [Renfrow's] felony assault conviction and neglected to address the GBI enhancement that he had admitted. "The failure to impose or strike an enhancement is a legally unauthorized sentence subject to correction even if the correction results in a harsher punishment." [Citations omitted]

The trial court corrected its error when, in December 2004, it revoked probation, declined to strike the GBI enhancement, and ordered execution of sentence for both the felony assault conviction and the enhancement.

In granting [Renfrow's] petition for writ of habeas corpus, the superior court (habeas corpus court) held that the trial court's correction of its earlier sentencing error was error itself. This was so, the habeas corpus court concluded, because "[u]nder the authority of People versus Howard [supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 1088, 68 Cal.Rptr.2d 870, 946 P.2d 828], the [trial court] only could have ordered into execution the three-year suspended prison term." Thus, the habeas corpus court deemed the GBI enhancement to have "been stricken," and ordered into effect the middle term of three years previously imposed but suspended for the felony assault conviction.

As we will explain, it is the habeas corpus court that got it wrong.

In order to strike an enhancement "in the furtherance of justice" (§ 1385, subd. (c)(1)), a trial court must set forth, on the record, its reasons for doing so. (§ 1385, subds. (a), (c)(1); People v. Orin (1975) 13 Cal.3d 937, 944--945, 120 Cal.Rptr. 65, 533 P.2d 193.) That did not occur in this case when, in May 2004, the trial court granted defendant probation after imposing sentence, suspending execution thereof, but neglecting to address the GBI enhancement. Thus, the habeas corpus court erred in deeming the GBI enhancement to have been stricken.

Citing mitigating circumstances, [Renfrow] argues the record "indicates a clear intention by the [trial court] to exercise leniency" by not imposing the GBI enhancement. This not only would run afoul of section 1385, subdivisions (a) and (c)(1), the People correctly respond that the record does not support [Renfrow's] claim. As the People point out, it is likely that the trial court "simply overlooked" the GBI enhancement.

The habeas corpus court also erred in ruling that People v. Howard, supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 1088, 68 Cal.Rptr.2d 870, 946 P.2d 828 (hereafter Howard ) required the trial court to order execution of only the three-year middle term it had imposed but suspended during probation.

Howard held that "section 1203.2, subdivision (c), and [former] rule 435(b)(2) [of the California Rules of Court (now rule 4.435(b)(2)) ], by their terms, limit the court's power in situations in which the court chose to impose sentence but suspended its execution pending a term of probation. On revocation of probation, if the court previously had imposed sentence, the sentencing judge must order that exact sentence into effect [citations], subject to its possible recall under section 1170, subdivision (d), after defendant has been committed to custody."

However, Howard-and the statute and rule of court upon which it relied-governs a lawful sentence imposed and suspended pending the completion of probation. It did not address an unauthorized sentence that was imposed but suspended. Therefore, contrary to the habeas corpus court's ruling, Howard is not controlling because an appellate decision is authority "only 'for the points actually involved and actually decided.' [Citations.]" [Citation omitted]

Long before Howard, the California Supreme Court held that an unauthorized sentence "is subject to being set aside judicially and is no bar to the imposition of a proper judgment thereafter, even though it is more severe than the original unauthorized pronouncement." [Citations omitted.] Indeed, "the prosecution may raise for the first time on appeal or in connection with a defendant's habeas corpus petition the question of whether a sentence was unauthorized by law." [Citation omitted]

Because "an unauthorized sentence" is "subject to judicial correction when it ultimately [comes] to the attention of the trial court or [reviewing] court [citation omitted], the trial court in this case acted properly in December 2004 by correcting its earlier unauthorized sentence that had failed to impose or strike the GBI enhancement. (Cf. In re Robinson (1956) 142 Cal.App.2d 484, 485--486, 298 P.2d 656 [execution of an unauthorized sentence of one year in the county jail was suspended during probation; when probation was revoked, the court properly imposed and executed "the only legally proper sentence," a commitment to state prison for the term prescribed by law].)*fn34

To the extent that Renfrow raises issues of the proper application of state law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding.*fn35 It is a fundamental precept of dual federalism that the states possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law.*fn36 "[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."*fn37

A petitioner may not transform a state-law issue into a federal one by simply asserting a violation of due process.*fn38 "[The Supreme Court has] long recognized that a mere error of state law is not a denial of due process."*fn39 "[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.'"*fn40 "Federal courts hold no supervisory authority over state judicial proceedings and may intervene only to correct wrongs of constitutional dimension."*fn41

The Supreme Court has never held that the correction of a sentence to comport to the requirements of state law violates due process.*fn42 Indeed, Supreme Court precedent supports the contrary conclusion. In this case, the increased sentence was to correct an error necessary to comply with state law, not as a result of vindictiveness.*fn43 In the absence of specific Supreme Court authority supporting his claim, Renfrow is not entitled to relief.*fn44 Having failed to raise an question of constitutional dimension, Renfrow is not entitled to relief under his first ground.

Ground 2: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Renfrow contends that, in failing to raise his first ground on appeal in Renfrow II, appellate counsel's representation was ineffective. Renfrow raised this claim in his June 2008 petition for habeas relief. As noted above, because the California Supreme Court summarily denied Renfrow's petition, this Court presumes that the state court decision rested on federal grounds,*fn45 giving the presumed decision the same deference as a reasoned decision.*fn46

Under Strickland, to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, Renfrow must show both that his counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced his defense.*fn47 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."*fn48 Renfrow 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.*fn49 An ineffective assistance of counsel claim should be denied if the petitioner fails to make a sufficient showing under either one of the Strickland prongs.*fn50

In reviewing ineffective assistance of counsel claims in a federal habeas proceeding:

The question "is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination" under the Strickland standard "was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold." Schriro, supra, at 473, 127 S.Ct. 1933. And, because the Strickland standard is a general standard, a state court has even more latitude to reasonably determine that a defendant has not satisfied that standard. See Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664, 124 S.Ct. 2140, 158 L.Ed.2d 938 (2004) ("[E]valuating whether a rule application was unreasonable requires considering the rule's specificity. The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations").*fn51

It is through this doubly deferential lens that a federal habeas court reviews Strickland claims under the § 2254(d)(1) standard.*fn52

The Supreme Court, applying the "doubly deferential standard," has made clear that when adjudicating ineffective assistance of counsel claims in federal habeas proceedings, unlike the situation on direct review, focus is not on whether counsel's performance fell below the Strickland standard. Rather, the focus is on whether the state-court decision holding that counsel was not ineffective constituted an "unreasonable application of federal law[,] [which] is different from an incorrect application of federal law."*fn53

Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or, as here, could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of this Court.*fn54

Because as discussed above, the California courts made clear, correction of a illegal sentence is not only permissible, but required under California law, his first claim lacks merit. The failure of appellate counsel to raise meritless or weak issues does not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.*fn55 This Court cannot say that the assumed decision of the California

Supreme Court was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn56 Nor, viewing the matter through the doubly-deferential lens of Mirzayance-Richter, can this Court find that the state court unreasonably applied the correct legal principle to the facts of the Renfrow's case within the scope of Andrade-Williams-Landrigan-Richter; i.e., the state court decision was not more than incorrect or erroneous, its application of clearly established federal law was not objectively unreasonable. Renfrow has failed to establish that his appellate counsel committed any error that was so serious that counsel was not functioning as the counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment or that defendant's defense was prejudiced, as required by Strickland-Hill. In particular, Renfrow has failed to overcome the strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Renfrow is not entitled to relief under his second ground.

V. CONCLUSION AND ORDER

Renfrow is not entitled to relief on any ground raised in his Petition.

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.*fn57 Any further request for a Certificate of Appealability must be addressed to the Court of Appeals.*fn58

The Clerk of the Court is to enter judgment accordingly.

James K. Singleton, Jr.


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