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Almeida v. Lewis

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 1, 2014

CARLOS H. ALMEIDA, Petitioner,
v.
GREG LEWIS, Warden, Respondent.

ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS AND DECLINING TO ISSUE CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY

MICHAEL J. SENG, District Judge.

Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent is represented by Ivan P. Marrs of the office of the California Attorney General. Both parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF Nos. 8, 28.)

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Petitioner is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections pursuant to a judgment of the Superior Court of California, County of Tulare, following his conviction upon pleading, on June 4, 2008, no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and various enhancements. (Clerk's Tr. at 162.) On August 13, 2008, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to serve a determinate term of fifteen (15) years in jail. (Id.)

Petitioner filed a direct appeal with the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, on December 3, 2008. (Lodged Doc. 5.) On April 21, 2009, the court reversed the judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court for reconsideration of Petitioner's motion to withdraw his plea. (Lodged Doc. 8.) After holding a two day hearing, the superior court denied the motion to withdraw the plea, and reinstated the original sentence. (Lodged Doc. 11 at 2-3.) Petitioner again appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment on July 8, 2010. (Lodged Docs. 10-11.)

Petitioner also pursued post-conviction relief in the form of petitions for writ of habeas corpus. On February 11, 2010, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the Tulare County Superior Court. (Lodged Doc. 12.) It was denied in a reasoned decision on March 18, 2010. (Lodged Doc. 13.) On May 7, 2010, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the California Court of Appeal. (Lodged Doc. 14.) The petition was denied. (Lodged Doc. 15.) On November 24, 2010, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court. (Lodged Doc. 16.) The petition was denied on May 18, 2011. (Lodged Doc. 17.)

Petitioner then sought another round of post-conviction relief. On March 1, 2011, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the Tulare County Superior Court. (Lodged Doc. 18.) It was denied in a reasoned decision on March 3, 2011. (Lodged Doc. 19.) On October 20, 2011, Petitioner filed a second petition for writ of habeas corpus with the Tulare County Superior Court. (Lodged Doc. 20.) It was denied in a reasoned decision on October 28, 2011. (Lodged Doc. 21.) On November 30, 2011, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the California Court of Appeal. (Lodged Doc. 22.) The petition was denied on May 18, 2012. (Lodged Doc. 23.) On December 29, 2011, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court. (Lodged Doc. 24.) The petition was denied on April 18, 2012. (Lodged Doc. 24.)

Petitioner filed the instant federal habeas petition on May 14, 2012. (Pet., ECF No. 1.) In his petition, Petitioner presents four claims, alleging (1) that his attorney was ineffective and improperly advised him to accept the guilty plea, (2) that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly conduct an investigation, (3) that Petitioner was physically coerced into making his confession, and (4) that the witnesses identification of Petitioner was the result of a physically coerced confession. (Id.)

Respondent filed an answer to the petition on October 12, 2012, and Petitioner filed a traverse on April 18, 2013. (Answer & Traverse, ECF Nos. 22, 34.)

II. STATEMENT OF THE FACTS[1]

On February 22, 2008, a City of Tulare police officer, investigating a report of a stabbing near a high school, met with Pedro A. (Pedro), who had suffered a knife wound in his left side, and Vincente R. (Vincente). Vincente told the officer the following: He, Pedro, and three other persons, all of whom were "affiliated" with the "Sureno" gang, were walking near the school when a group of "Nortenos, " including appellant, approached. Vincente and his companions tried to run away, but appellant caught up with them, at which point Pedro and appellant "engaged in a physical fight." During the fight, appellant "pulled out a knife and stabbed [Pedro] in the side."

Other officers saw appellant at a nearby fast food restaurant and detained him. "Several witnesses positively identified [appellant] as the subject who stabbed [Pedro]." Appellant initially denied any involvement, but "when told he was caught on video tape[, ] [he] eventually admitted stabbing the victim."

People v. Almeida, 2010 Cal.App. Unpub. LEXIS 5061, 4-5 (Cal.App. 5th Dist. July 2, 2010).

III. GOVERNING LAW

A. Jurisdiction

Relief by way of a petition for writ of habeas corpus extends to a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court if the custody is in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); 28 U.S.C. § 2241(c)(3); Williams v. Taylor , 529 U.S. 362, 375 fn.7 (2000). Petitioner asserts that he suffered violations of his rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the conviction challenged arises out of the Tulare County Superior Court, which is located within the jurisdiction of this court. 28 U.S.C. § 2241(d); 2254(a). Accordingly, the Court has jurisdiction over the action.

B. Legal Standard of Review

On April 24, 1996, Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), which applies to all petitions for writ of habeas corpus filed after its enactment. Lindh v. Murphy , 521 U.S. 320, 326 (1997); Jeffries v. Wood , 114 F.3d 1484, 1499 (9th Cir. 1997). The instant petition was filed after the enactment of the AEDPA; thus, it is governed by its provisions.

Under AEDPA, an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under a judgment of a state court may be granted only for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Williams v. Taylor , 529 U.S. at 375 n. 7 (2000). Federal habeas corpus relief is available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings if the state court's 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).

1. Contrary to or an Unreasonable Application of Federal Law

A state court decision is "contrary to" federal law if it "applies a rule that contradicts governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases" or "confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from" a Supreme Court case, yet reaches a different result." Brown v. Payton , 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005) citing Williams , 529 U.S. at 405-06. "AEDPA does not require state and federal courts to wait for some nearly identical factual pattern before a legal rule must be applied.... The statue recognizes... that even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner" Panetti v. Quarterman , 551 U.S. 930, 953 (2007) (citations and quotation marks omitted). The "clearly established Federal law" requirement "does not demand more than a principle' or general standard.'" Musladin v. Lamarque , 555 F.3d 830, 839 (2009). For a state decision to be an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under § 2254(d)(1), the Supreme Court's prior decisions must provide a governing legal principle (or principles) to the issue before the state court. Lockyer v. Andrade , 538 U.S. 63, 70-71 (2003). A state court decision will involve an "unreasonable application of" federal law only if it is "objectively unreasonable." Id. at 75-76, quoting Williams , 529 U.S. at 409-10; Woodford v. Visciotti , 537 U.S. 19, 24-25 (2002). In Harrington v. Richter , the Court further stresses that "an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." 131 S.Ct. 770, 785 (2011), (citing Williams , 529 U.S. at 410) (emphasis in original). "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." Id. at 786 (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado , 541 U.S. 653, 664 (2004)). Further, "[t]he more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reading outcomes in case-by-case determinations." Id .; Renico v. Lett , 130 S.Ct. 1855, 1864 (2010). "It is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by this Court." Knowles v. Mirzayance , 129 S.Ct. 1411, 1419 (2009), quoted by Richter , 131 S.Ct. at 786.

2. Review of State Decisions

"Where there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the claim rest on the same grounds." See Ylst v. Nunnemaker , 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991). This is referred to as the "look through" presumption. Id. at 804; Plascencia v. Alameida , 467 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2006). Determining whether a state court's decision resulted from an unreasonable legal or factual conclusion, "does not require that there be an opinion from the state court explaining the state court's reasoning." Richter , 131 S.Ct. at 784-85. "Where a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief." Id . ("This Court now holds and reconfirms that § 2254(d) does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been adjudicated on the merits.'").

Richter instructs that whether the state court decision is reasoned and explained, or merely a summary denial, the approach to evaluating unreasonableness under § 2254(d) is the same: "Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or, as here, could have supported, the state court's decision; 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." Id. at 786. Thus, "even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." Id . (citing Lockyer v. Andrade , 538 U.S. at 75). AEDPA "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." Id . To put it yet another way:

As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus relief 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.

Id. at 786-87. The Court then explains the rationale for this rule, i.e., "that state courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions." Id. at 787. It follows from this consideration that § 2254(d) "complements the exhaustion requirement and the doctrine of procedural bar to ensure that state proceedings are the central process, not just a preliminary step for later federal habeas proceedings." Id . (citing Wainwright v. Sykes , 433 U.S. 72, 90 (1977).

3. Prejudicial Impact of Constitutional Error

The prejudicial impact of any constitutional error is assessed by asking whether the error had "a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict." Brecht v. Abrahamson , 507 U.S. 619, 623 (1993); see also Fry v. Pliler , 551 U.S. 112, 121-22 (2007) (holding that the Brecht standard applies whether or not the state court recognized the error and reviewed it for harmlessness). Some constitutional errors, however, do not require that the petitioner demonstrate prejudice. See Arizona v. Fulminante , 499 U.S. 279, 310 (1991); United States v. Cronic , 466 U.S. 648, 659 (1984). Furthermore, where a habeas petition governed by AEDPA alleges ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the Strickland prejudice standard is applied and courts do not engage in a separate analysis applying the Brecht standard. Avila v. Galaza , 297 F.3d 911, 918, n. 7 (2002). Musalin v. Lamarque , 555 F.3d at 834.

IV. REVIEW OF PETITION

A. Claims 1 and 2 - Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Petitioner asserts that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate Petitioner's claims of self defense and improperly advised him to plea guilty. (Pet.)

1. Law Applicable to Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

The law governing ineffective assistance of counsel claims is clearly established for the purposes of the AEDPA deference standard set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Canales v. Roe , 151 F.3d 1226, 1229 (9th Cir. 1998). In a petition for writ of habeas corpus alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, the Court must consider two factors. Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984); Lowry v. Lewis , 21 F.3d 344, 346 (9th Cir. 1994). First, the petitioner must show that counsel's performance was deficient, requiring a showing that counsel made errors so serious that he or she was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Strickland , 466 U.S. at 687. The petitioner must show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and must identify counsel's alleged acts or omissions that were not the result of reasonable professional judgment considering the circumstances. Id. at 688; United States v. Quintero-Barraza , 78 F.3d 1344, 1348 (9th Cir. 1995). Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance is highly deferential. A court indulges a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Strickland , 466 U.S. at 687; see also, Harrington v. Richter , 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011).

Second, the petitioner must demonstrate that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result... would have been different." Strickland , 466 U.S. at 694. Petitioner must show that counsel's errors were "so serious as to deprive defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Id. at 687. The Court must evaluate whether the entire trial was fundamentally unfair or unreliable because of counsel's ineffectiveness. Id .; Quintero-Barraza , 78 F.3d at 1348; United States v. Palomba , 31 F.3d 1456, 1461 (9th Cir. 1994).

A court need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the petitioner as a result of the alleged deficiencies. Strickland , 466 U.S. at 697. Since the defendant must affirmatively prove prejudice, any deficiency that does not result in prejudice must necessarily fail. However, there are certain instances which are legally presumed to result in prejudice, e.g., where there has been an actual or constructive denial of the assistance of counsel or where the State has interfered with counsel's assistance. Id. at 692; United States v. Cronic , 466 U.S., at 659, and n. 25 (1984).

As the Supreme Court reaffirmed recently in Harrington v. Richter , meeting the standard for ineffective assistance of counsel in federal habeas is extremely difficult:

The pivotal question is whether the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable. This is different from asking whether defense counsel's performance fell below Strickland's standard. Were that the inquiry, the analysis would be no different than if, for example, this Court were adjudicating a Strickland claim on direct review of a criminal conviction in a United States district court. Under AEDPA, though, it is a necessary premise that the two questions are different. For purposes of § 2254(d)(1), "an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Williams, supra, at 410, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389. A state court must be granted a deference and latitude that are not in operation when the case involves review under the Strickland standard itself.
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. Yarborough v. Alvarado , 541 U.S. 652, 664, 124 S.Ct. 2140, 158 L.Ed.2d 938 (2004). And as this Court has explained, "[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." Ibid. "[I]t is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by this Court." Knowles v. Mirzayance , 556 U.S. 111, 129 S.Ct. 1411, 1419, 173 L.Ed.2d 251, 261 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Harrington v. Richter , 131 S.Ct. at 785-86.

"It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." Id. at 786. "As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings." Id . "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." Id. at 786-87.

Accordingly, even if Petitioner presents a strong case of ineffective assistance of counsel, this Court may only grant relief if no fairminded jurist could agree on ...


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