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John Calvin Lacey, Jr v. Matthew Cate

March 28, 2013



Petitioner is a state prisoner without counsel proceeding with an application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The parties in this action have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Petitioner challenges a 2008 judgment of conviction entered against him in the Placer County Superior Court on charges of passing a fictitious bill with the intent to defraud, with enhancements for having suffered a prior strike conviction and for having served four prior prison terms. He seeks relief on the grounds that: (1) he was denied due process and the effective assistance of counsel when evidence of his inadmissible confession was introduced at his trial; (2) the prosecutor committed misconduct; (3) the trial court violated his right to due process when it admitted opinion testimony regarding his state of mind; (4) the trial court violated his right to due process by permitting the prosecution to present evidence of "subsequent uncharged acts; and (5) he was denied due process as a result of the cumulative impact of the errors at his trial. Upon careful consideration of the record and the applicable law, the petitioner's application for habeas corpus relief must be denied.

I. Factual and Procedural Background*fn1

A jury convicted defendant John Calvin Lacey, Jr., of passing a fictitious or altered bill with the intent to defraud. (Pen. Code, § 476.) In a bifurcated proceeding, the trial court found that defendant had two strikes (id., §§ 667, subds. (b)-(I), 1170.12, subds. (a)-(d)) and four prior prison terms (id., § 667.5, subd. (b)). After granting defendant's motion to strike one strike, the trial court sentenced defendant to a total term of 10 years in state prison.

On appeal defendant contends: (1) he was deprived of due process and the effective assistance of counsel when inadmissible evidence of his confession came in without objection; (2) the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct by eliciting the evidence; (3) the trial court improperly admitted opinion testimony about defendant's state of mind; (4) the trial court improperly admitted evidence of subsequent uncharged acts; and (5) the cumulative impact of these errors compels reversal. Disagreeing with all of these contentions, we shall affirm the judgment.


In the early morning hours of December 18, 2006, at Thunder Valley Casino, defendant gave blackjack dealer Don Rivard four $100 bills to buy chips. After putting the bills in the table's "drop box," Rivard dealt a hand, which defendant played without winning or losing anything. He then gave Rivard four more $100 bills for chips.

Thinking it unusual for a player who still has all his original chips to buy more, Rivard checked the last two digits of the serial numbers on two of the bills; they were the same. Rivard discreetly called his floor supervisor over and suggested she inspect the bills. Security was also summoned, and several officers escorted defendant out.

Before defendant left, the casino's graveyard-shift security supervisor, Mark Tabios, told him the bills were suspected of being counterfeit and asked where he had gotten them. Defendant, seeming apologetic, said he might have gotten them from a check-cashing place in Stockton. Tabios gave him a receipt and said that if the bills turned out to be legitimate, the casino would call him and he could pick up his money.

When all of defendant's bills were inspected, all eight turned out to have the same serial number. According to Antonio Espinoza, a special agent with the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control, their watermarks and security strips proved that the bills were $5 notes which had been washed out and overprinted to counterfeit $100 notes.

On February 22, 2007, Agent Espinoza, accompanied by Bureau of Gambling Control Special Agent Supervisor Aaron Wong, interviewed defendant at a restaurant in Modesto. Defendant now claimed the bills came from a $1,000 cash payment from "Joe" for driving a truck from the Los Angeles area to Sacramento. He also said that the casino had never called him to tell him the money was legitimate, although he had called the day after the incident to ask about it.

During the interview, Agent Espinoza asked to see defendant's driver's license. As defendant took it out of his pocket, a $5 bill came out with it; he put it back in his pocket. When Espinoza asked to see the bill, defendant said at first he did not have any money with him. But after Espinoza said he had already seen the bill, defendant gave it to him. Espinoza observed that it lacked a watermark and a security strip, which are found on all United States currency except $1 bills. Defendant claimed he had gotten it as change at a gas station.*fn2 Defendant did not testify. He called blackjack dealer Rivard, who testified that defendant had shown him identification to support an application for a "player's card." Defendant also called security supervisor Tabios, who testified that he had been told by another security supervisor that a Black male seated in the pit had given defendant money earlier. (However, when security asked to see this person's money, it proved to be legitimate.)

Resp.'s Lodg. Doc. 4 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.*fn3

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).*fn4

B. Petitioner's Claims

1. Admission into Evidence of Petitioner's Confession

In his first ground for relief, petitioner claims that he was denied due process and the effective assistance of counsel when evidence of his inadmissible confession was introduced at his trial. He argues that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in failing to object to this evidence, and particularly in failing to request a jury admonition and/or a mistrial. Dckt. 1 (Pet.) at 8.

The California Court of Appeal rejected these arguments in the last reasoned state court decision on this claim. The court ruled as follows:

Defendant contends he was denied due process and the effective assistance of counsel because trial counsel did not object and request an admonition to the jury or demand a mistrial after Agent Espinoza revealed that defendant had confessed in custody -- a confession ...

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