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Kevin Alexander Waller v. C. Wofford

November 19, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Wistrich United States Magistrate Judge



On an afternoon in April 2009, Los Angeles Police Officers Jorge Gonzalez and Victor Escobedo were assigned to work a particular location in the city based on reports of illegal narcotics-related activity in the area. The officers saw Waller standing in the street, delaying the flow of traffic as he attempted to jaywalk. The officers stopped to issue Waller a traffic citation. When they approached him, they smelled marijuana. Escobedo asked Waller why he smelled marijuana. Waller told the officers he had a "sack of weed in his pocket." Escobedo searched him. In Waller's coin pocket, Escobedo found a small plastic bag containing a substance resembling marijuana. Escobedo also found 11 other small plastic bags containing a substance resembling marijuana in Waller's right front pants pocket. In the same pocket, Escobedo found $185 in small bills. Waller did not have any paraphernalia with him to smoke or otherwise ingest the drugs. Tests later confirmed the substance in the bags was marijuana. [Lodged Document ("LD") 8 at 2].

Petitioner was convicted of possession of marijuana for sale. In a separate proceeding, during which petitioner was represented by counsel, the trial court found true the allegations that petitioner had suffered two prior convictions, and a prior strike within the meaning of the "Three Strikes" law. He was sentenced to state prison for a term of six years. [Clerk's Transcript ("CT") 267, 298, 322].

Petitioner appealed. The California Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction on October 26, 2011. [LD 8]. The California Supreme Court denied petitioner's petition for review on January 25, 2012. [Petition at 53].

In his petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed in this Court, petitioner alleges that: (1) the trial court erred in failing to hold a competency hearing; and (2) the trial court erred by denying his motion for discovery of police personnel files pursuant to Pitchess v. Superior Court, 11 Cal.3d 531 (1974). [Petition at 12]. Respondent filed an answer to the petition. Petitioner did not file a reply.

Standard of Review

A federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in state custody 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); see Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). As used in Section 2254(d), the phrase "clearly established federal law" means "holdings of the Supreme Court at the time of the state court decision." Stanley v. Cullen, 633 F.3d 852, 859 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 412). Although only Supreme Court law is binding, "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)).

Under section 2254(d)(1), a state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as "fairminded jurists could disagree" about the correctness of the state court's decision. Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). This is true even where a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation. In such cases, the petitioner must show that "there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief." Richter, 131 S.Ct. at 784.

Relief is warranted under section 2254(d)(2), only when a state court decision based on a factual determination is "objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding." Stanley, 633 F.3d at 859 (quoting Davis v. Woodford, 384 F.3d 628, 638 (9th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 545 U.S. 1165 (2005)). Finally, state court findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless petitioner rebuts that presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).


1. The trial court's failure to hold a competency hearing

Petitioner alleges that the trial court was required to conduct a hearing on the issue of petitioner's competence to stand trial. [Petition at 12 and attached pages].

The conviction of a defendant while he or she is incompetent violates due process. Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 170 (2008); Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 171 (1975). In order to protect against the trial of an incompetent defendant, the Supreme Court has required that a trial court confronted with evidence raising a "bona fide doubt" about a defendant's competency must order a competency hearing sua sponte. Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 385 (1966).

A defendant is incompetent if "he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense." Drope, 420 U.S. at 171; see Douglas v. Woodford, 316 F.3d 1079, 1094 (9th Cir. 2003) ("To be competent to stand trial, a defendant must demonstrate an ability 'to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' and a 'rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.'") (quoting Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 396 (1993) (internal quotations and citation omitted)).

"Although no particular facts signal a defendant's incompetence, suggestive evidence includes the defendant's demeanor before the trial judge, irrational behavior of the defendant, and available medical evaluations of the defendant's competence to stand trial." Williams v. Woodford, 384 F.3d 567, 604 (9th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 934 (2005). If a reasonable judge would have had a bona fide doubt about the defendant's competency, due ...

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