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Bravo v. Sherman

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 7, 2018

RAMON BRAVO, Petitioner,
STU SHERMAN, Respondent.



         I. Introduction

         Petitioner is a state prisoner, proceeding through counsel, with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges his 2012 conviction for attempted murder (Cal. Penal Code §§ 664/187(a)), discharge of a firearm from a motor vehicle (Cal. Penal Code § 12034(c)), and committing these offenses for the benefit of a criminal street gang (Cal. Penal Code § 186.22(b)(1), (f)). Petitioner is serving a sentence of thirty-two years to life.

         Petitioner raises two claims: 1) insufficient evidence to support his attempted murder conviction; and 2) insufficient evidence to support his conviction for discharge of a firearm from a motor vehicle. After carefully considering the record, the undersigned recommends that the petition be denied.

         II. 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. 1, 4 (2010); Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991).

         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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         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 last reasoned state court decision. Thompson v. Runnels, 705 F.3d 1089, 1096 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Greene v. Fisher, 132 S.Ct. 38 (2011); Stanley v. Cullen, 633 F.3d 852, 859 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)). 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)). However, circuit precedent may not be “used to refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that th[e] [Supreme] Court has not announced.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. 58, 64 (2013) (citing Parker v. Matthews, 132 S.Ct. 2148, 2155 (2012) (per curiam)). Nor may it be used to “determine whether a particular rule of law is so widely accepted among the Federal Circuits that it would, if presented to th[e] [Supreme] Court, be accepted as correct. Id. Further, where courts of appeals have diverged in their treatment of an issue, it cannot be said that there is “clearly established Federal law” governing that issue. Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 77 (2006).

         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');">538 U.S. 634, 640 (2003). “[R]eview under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011).

         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.[1]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. 86, 101 (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.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.

         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.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 99. 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 99-100 (citing Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991)). Similarly, when a state court decision on a petitioner's claims rejects some claims but does not expressly address a federal claim, a federal habeas court must presume, subject to rebuttal, that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits. Johnson v. Williams, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 1091 (2013).

         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.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 98.

         A summary denial is presumed to be a denial on the merits of the petitioner's claims. Stancle v. Clay, 692 F.3d 948, 957 & n.3 (9th Cir. 2012). While the federal court cannot analyze just what the state court did when it issued a summary denial, the federal court must review the state court record to determine whether there was any reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. Richter, 562 U.S. at 98. This court “must determine what arguments or theories . . . 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 [the Supreme] Court.” Id. at 102. The petitioner bears “the burden to demonstrate that ‘there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief.'” Walker v. Martel, 709 F.3d 925, 939 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 98).

         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).

         In the instant action, the California Court of Appeal is the last state court to issue a reasoned decision addressing petitioner's claims. (See Respondent's Lodged Documents 6, 8.) Accordingly, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d), the undersigned gives deference to the opinion of the California Court of Appeal.

         III. Factual Background

         The opinion of the California Court of Appeal contains a factual summary. After independently reviewing the record, the undersigned finds this summary to be accurate and adopts it herein.

         The Victim's Testimony

On the morning of April 3, 2010, Juan Alvarado, a member of the Norteño gang, started walking from his girlfriend's house on Taft Street to his father's home on Berggren Street, about five blocks away. As Alvarado turned onto Berggren Street, a car drove up, stopped, and Alvarado was shot by the man in the front passenger seat. Alvarado was hit once in the abdomen, sustaining life-threatening injuries. Defendant was the driver. The passengers were: Gerardo Villasenor, Narciso Guzman, and Roberto Padilla. The occupants of the car were members of the Sureño gang.
At trial, Alvarado testified he was walking with his head down “half asleep” when he heard a screeching sound, as if someone driving a car was slamming on the brakes. He then heard a gunshot, looked up, and saw heads in the car. Alvarado was walking north, while the car traveled south on Taft Street. The car took off after he was shot.
Alvarado initially denied knowing who shot him, but later identified Villasenor (codefendant) as the shooter. [Footnote 3] Codefendant was about 25 feet from Alvarado when he was shot. [Footnote 4.] Alvarado attended sixth and seventh grades with codefendant, and knew codefendant's brother. As a Norteño, he was not supposed to snitch against others, even members of a rival gang like the Sureños.
[Footnote 3: Villasenor is not a party to this appeal.]
[Footnote 4: Before Alvarado admitted codefendant shot him, he testified the car was 40 feet away when he was shot.]
A police officer responding to the incident found Alvarado in the backyard of a nearby residence. Among the items worn by Alvarado were a red belt with the letter “N” on the buckle and black and red shoes. Alvarado said he was walking outside when he was shot, and then jumped over a fence and told the home's resident to call the police. Alvarado identified the car as a late 1990's gold, four-door Oldsmobile. He said there were five Hispanic guys in the car, all members of the Sureño gang. Alvarado would not further identify them, which was common in gang shootings.
Alvarado was later interviewed by police at the hospital. He told the officer he was walking north on Taft Street at the corner of Berggren Street, when a car traveling south on Taft turned left on Berggren. Someone on the passenger side shot him. The car was about 12 feet away from Alvarado when he was shot. The car's occupants were from the Howe Park Sureño gang.
Alvarado identified codefendant as the shooter in a photographic lineup. Alvarado told the officer he thought he went to middle school with codefendant, and had beaten up codefendant's older brother and the boyfriend of codefendant's sister when he was in the ninth grade.
Guzman's Testimony
In April 2010, Narciso Guzman lived with his parents in Sacramento, having moved there from Orange County about 10 years earlier. He was friends with Sureño gang members in Orange County, and joined the Sureños within a few years of moving to Sacramento. He was a friend of codefendant, whom he referred to by the nickname “Lalo, ” and knew defendant by the nickname “Charlie Brown.” He admitted Howe Park Sureños often carried guns.
On the day of the incident, Guzman was picked up in the Arden area by defendant, who was driving an Oldsmobile Alero. Guzman sat in the rear passenger seat, while defendant drove and codefendant sat in the front passenger seat. Padilla sat behind defendant. At 7:12 a.m., they stopped at a liquor store at the intersection of Marysville Boulevard and Del Paso Boulevard, where Guzman bought beer.
After buying beer, defendant drove to the “wrong side of the neighborhood” instead of to Guzman's neighborhood to drop Guzman off at his home. Codefendant spotted a person he recognized, and defendant pulled over at the intersection of Taft and Berggren Streets. The car was in the center of the street at the intersection. Guzman could not recall why defendant stopped the car, and did not remember seeing the person wearing anything red. However, he believed that after the ...

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