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United States v. Hunt

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 7, 2019

MAURICE HUNT, Defendant.




         Petitioner Maurice Hunt, a prisoner in federal custody proceeding pro se, moves to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. See ECF No. 155. For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES Petitioner's motion in its entirety.


         A. The Underlying Conviction

         On August 9, 2013, a jury found Petitioner guilty of one court of sex trafficking of a minor or by force, fraud, and coercion under 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)(1); three counts of corruptly endeavoring to influence, obstruct, or impede the due administration of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1503; and two counts of witness tampering under 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(1). See ECF No. 76. On October 28, 2013, Petitioner was sentenced to 600 months in custody. See ECF Nos. 98, 99.

         B. Petitioner's Pre-Trial, Trial, and Appellate Representation

         The Government's opposition documents Petitioner's extensive history of caustic and uncooperative relationships with his appointed counsel and this Court, and the Court adopts and incorporates by reference the Government's recitation of these facts and the relevant citations to the record. See ECF No. 175 at 1-6. In short, before trial, Petitioner was represented by two different, equally competent counsel before insisting on proceeding pro se at trial. Id. at 4-5. The perils of such pro se representation were repeatedly explained to Petitioner. See, e.g., id. at 4-5, 8. On the third day of his trial, during the presentation of his defense, Petitioner refused to participate any further in the trial. Id. at 1-2, 5. Despite being given multiple opportunities that day and the next, Petitioner steadfastly refused to comport himself within the rules of courtroom decorum and participate in his trial, and the Court did not have any choice but to remove Petitioner from the courtroom. Id. at 1-2, 5, 7-8. Petitioner did not participate in the jury instruction process or give any closing argument. Id. Petitioner was convicted on all counts. ECF No. 76. After conviction, at Petitioner's request, another experienced criminal defense attorney was appointed to represent Petitioner at sentencing, but Petitioner later insisted on representing himself. Id. at 6.

         On appeal, Katherine L. Hart was the first attorney appointed to represent Petitioner. ECF No. 175 at 2. As documented in Ms. Hart's declaration and the exhibits attached thereto, Petitioner was antagonistic and abusive toward Ms. Hart from the start and throughout her representation of Petitioner, despite her diligent work to develop the best possible appellate arguments. Id.; see also ECF No. 175-1, Ex. A. Indeed, Petitioner filed or attempted to file at least two dozen different documents that undermined, contradicted, or supplemented arguments or filings by Ms. Hart, even though the Ninth Circuit repeatedly admonished Petitioner that because he was represented by counsel, only counsel could file submissions and his pro se submissions would not be entertained. Id. Despite Petitioner's uncooperative and abusive behavior, Ms. Hart filed an oversized brief containing eight arguments challenging each of his convictions, supported by the relevant law and factual record. Id.

         The Ninth Circuit permitted Ms. Hart to be relieved as appellate counsel on March 19, 2015. ECF No. 175 at 2. The Ninth Circuit then appointed Barry L. Morris, an attorney with significant trial and appellate experience, to continue with Petitioner's appeal. Id. at 3. Again, as documented in a declaration by Mr. Morris, Petitioner was antagonistic and abusive towards his represented counsel, but nevertheless Mr. Morris filed a 59-page reply brief focused on six issues. Id; see also ECF No. 175-1, Ex. B. As with Ms. Hart, despite Mr. Morris's diligent work, Petitioner moved to remove Mr. Morris as counsel and continued to undermine his counsel's work through numerous pro se submissions, and the Ninth Circuit once again admonished Petitioner and refused to entertain his pro se submissions. Id.

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit on November 12, 2015. See United States v. Hunt, 622 Fed.Appx. 656, 657 (9th Cir. 2015). After the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion, Mr. Morris reviewed the decision and record, and concluded there was no basis for a petition for rehearing or a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. ECF No. 175 at 3. Accordingly, Mr. Morris moved to withdraw from Petitioner's case and the Ninth Circuit granted his request. Id. Petitioner did not file a petition for rehearing.

         Petitioner filed a pro se petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court on January 5, 2016, and the petition was denied on October 3, 2016. See Hunt v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 91 (2016).

         C. Petitioner's § 2255 Motion

         On October 5, 2017, Petitioner filed this § 2255 motion pro se. ECF No. 155. The United States filed its opposition on May 11, 2018. ECF No. 175. Petitioner filed his reply on July 16, 2018. ECF No. 185. In the following months, Petitioner also filed several notices of supplemental case authority and requests for status updates. ECF Nos. 188-193, 195, 198.

         Petitioner's § 2255 motion is more than 200 pages long and raises 44 “grounds” for relief. See ECF No. 155.[2] The Government asserts at threshold that Petitioner procedurally defaulted or otherwise waived numerous arguments due to his refusal to participate in trial and failure to raise such grounds on appeal. The Government further argues that none of Petitioner's claims of ineffective of counsel or other remaining claims permit vacating Petitioner's convictions.


         A federal prisoner making a collateral attack against the validity of his or her conviction or sentence must do so by way of a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, filed in the court which imposed sentence. Tripati v. Henman, 843 F.2d 1160, 1162 (9th Cir. 1988). A § 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence of a federal prisoner entitles the prisoner to relief “[i]f the court finds that … there has been such a denial or infringement of the constitutional rights of the prisoner . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

         Generally, only a narrow range of claims fall within the scope of § 2255. United States v. Wilcox, 640 F.2d 970, 972 (9th Cir. 1981). To warrant relief, a petitioner must demonstrate the existence of an error of constitutional magnitude that had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the guilty plea or the jury's verdict. See Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993); see also United States v. Montalvo, 331 F.3d 1052, 1058 (9th Cir. 2003) (“We hold now that Brecht's harmless error standard applies to habeas cases under section 2255, just as it does to those under section 2254.”). The alleged error of law must be “a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.” Davis v. United States, 417 U.S. 333, 346 (1974) (quoting Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428 (1962)).[3]

         As a pro se litigant, the petitioner's pleadings are accorded liberal construction and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007). However, the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore an obvious failure to allege facts which set forth a cognizable claim. “Conclusory allegations which are not supported by a statement of specific facts do not warrant habeas relief.” James v. Borg, 24 F.3d 20, 26 (9th Cir. 1994); see also Shah v. United States, 878 F.2d 1156, 1161 (9th Cir.1989) (“vague and conclusory” allegations in a § 2255 motion do not support relief); Gustave v. United States, 627 F.2d 901, 904 (9th Cir.1980) (“[w]e also concur in the dismissal of the allegations concerning the photographic array shown to some witnesses as vague, conclusory and without any facts alleged in support of the claim); Neighbors v. United States, 457 F.2d 795 (9th Cir.1972) (§ 2255 motion was properly denied where allegations regarding denial of effective assistance of counsel were entirely conclusory and without support in the record).

         “When a district court reviews a § 2255 habeas motion, ‘[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the court shall . . . grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto.'” United States v. Withers, 638 F.3d 1055, 1062 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2255). The court need not hold an evidentiary hearing where the prisoner's allegations, when viewed against the record, either do not state a claim for relief or are “so palpably incredible or patently frivolous as to warrant summary dismissal.” United States v. McMullen, 98 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 1994) (internal citations omitted). Thus, an evidentiary hearing is only required if: (1) the prisoner “allege[s] specific facts which, if true, would entitle him to relief; and (2) the petition, files and record of the case cannot conclusively show that he is entitled to no relief.” United States v. Howard, 381 F.3d 873, 877 (9th Cir. 2004).


         For the reasons discussed below, all of Petitioner's grounds fail and will be denied.

         A. Law of the Case Doctrine

         “Under the law of the case doctrine, a court is ordinarily precluded from reexamining an issue previously decided by the same court, or the higher court, in the same case.” United States v. Smith, 389 F.3d 944, 948 (9th Cir.2004) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The doctrine “is a judicial invention designed to aid in the efficient operation of court affairs . . . not an inexorable command.” Smith, 389 F.3d at 948-49 (internal quotations omitted). “For the doctrine to apply, the issue in question must have been decided explicitly or by necessary implication in [the] previous disposition.” United States v. Jingles, 702 F.3d 494, 499-500 (9th Cir.2012) cert. denied, 568 U.S. 1257 (2013) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “An argument is rejected by necessary implication when the holding stated or result reached is inconsistent with the argument.” Jingles, 702 F.3d at 502 (quoting United States v. Jordan, 429 F.3d 1032, 1035 (11th Cir. 2005)).

         “The law in this circuit is clear that when a matter has been decided adversely on appeal from a conviction, it cannot be litigated again on a [§] 2255 motion.” Odom v. United States, 455 F.2d 159, 160 (9th Cir. 1972); see also United States v. Scrivner, 189 F.3d 825, 828 (9th Cir. 1999) (“In this case, Scrivner's Fifth Amendment claim was presented to [the Ninth Circuit] on direct appeal in Scrivner I and rejected on the merits. That decision is binding on our resolution of the case.”); United States v. Redd, 759 F.2d 699, 700-01 (9th Cir. 1985) (“Redd raised this precise claim in his direct appeal, and this court expressly rejected it. Therefore, the claim cannot be the basis of a 2255 motion.”); United States v. Ortiz-Villalobos, Cr. No. 02-0213-MCE-CMK, 2007 WL 2727131, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Sept.17, 2007), report and recommendation adopted, 2007 WL 4260933 (“Because the Court of Appeals has already concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support movant's conspiracy objections, the sufficiency of the evidence cannot be relitigated in the context of a § 2255 motion.”); United States v. Matlock, Cr. No. 92-0315-GEB-PANP, 2006 WL 306902, at *2 (Feb. 8, 2006), report and recommendation adopted, 2006 WL 902275 (“Absent exceptional circumstances, a matter decided adversely on direct appeal from a conviction cannot be relitigated on a section 225 motion.”).

         The “law of the case” doctrine is subject to three exceptions: “(1) the decision is clearly erroneous and its enforcement would work a manifest injustice, (2) intervening controlling authority makes reconsideration appropriate, or (3) substantially different evidence was adduced at a subsequent trial.” Old Person v. Brown, 312 F.3d 1036, 1039, 1043 (9th Cir.2002) (describing the exceptions to law of the case as “limited”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Jingles, 702 F.3d at 503 n.3 (noting some decisions have formulated the exceptions differently but stating the en banc court has consistently identified only three exceptions, and adopting the same).

         The Ninth Circuit held as follows on Petitioner's direct appeal in this case:

• Petitioner's conduct had the required substantial effect on interstate commerce for purposes of his sex trafficking conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1591.
• The Government established the interstate-nexus element of § 1591 via introducing evidence that Petitioner took the victim to a motel that serves out-of-state customers and does its banking with an institution with locations in nineteen states.
• A § 1591 conviction “may be premised on the defendant's knowledge or reckless disregard of the fact that ‘means of force, threats of force, fraud,' or coercion will be used to cause a victim to engage in a commercial sex act. 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a). This element of the offense was established by evidence that Hunt knew ‘in the sense of being aware of an established modus operandi that' would in the future cause the victim to engage in prostitution by force, fraud, or coercion.” Hunt, 622 Fed.Appx. at 657 (quoting United States v. Todd, 627 F.3d 329, 334 (9th Cir. 2009)).
• § 1591 is not unconstitutional absent proof of a defendant's mens rea as to age because the presumption of construing statutes to include mens rea requirements does not apply to sex crimes against minors if the defendant “confronts the underage victim personally.”
• The Court did not commit plain error in its failure to define “corruptly” in the jury instruction on witness tampering, the obstruction of justice instruction did define “corruptly, ” and neither instruction covered innocent conduct.
• There was sufficient evidence to convict Petitioner of obstruction of justice.
• There was sufficient evidence to convict Petitioner of witness tampering.

See Hunt, 622 Fed. App'x at 657-58.

         Several of Petitioner's claims relitigate matters decided explicitly or by necessary implication on direct appeal, including:

• Ground 10A, claiming that the Ninth Circuit's use of Todd's definition of “knowing” based on modus operandi violated Petitioner's due process rights because it creates a vague statute with different definitions of each use of the word “knowing” in § 1591, and further that such a rationale permits establishing “knowledge” regardless of the defendant's subjective intent. See ECF No. 155 at 49.
• Ground 10B, asserting that the Ninth Circuit's definition of “knowing” based on modus operandi allows conviction without awareness of wrongdoing. See ECF No. 155 at 56.
• Ground 10C, arguing that the Government presented no evidence at trial that Petitioner knew that using force against the victim would cause her to engage in a commercial sex act. See ECF No. 155 at 60.
• Ground 11A, that the Ninth Circuit's use of Todd's modus operendi to establish knowledge that force/threats/coercion would cause the victim to engage in a commercial sex act constructively amended the jury instructions and violates Due Process rights. See ECF No. 155 at 69.
• Ground 14, that the Ninth Circuit's use of Todd's modus operendi to establish knowledge that force/threats/coercion would cause the victim to engage in a commercial sex act is the equivalent of allowing conviction on a negligent mental state not contained in § 1591. ECF No. 155 at 87.

         These claims amount to Petitioner's disagreement with the Ninth Circuit's reliance on Todd in holding that the element of “knowing” “was established in this case by evidence at trial that Petitioner “knew ‘in the sense of being aware of an established modus operandi that' would in the future cause the victim to engage in prostitution by force, fraud, or coercion.” Hunt, 622 Fed.Appx. at 657. Petitioner's arguments for these grounds were rejected explicitly or by necessary implication via the Ninth Circuit's reliance upon the published, binding Todd opinion. And Petitioner has not shown that any exceptions to the law of the case doctrine apply. See Jingles, 702 F.3d at 503. Indeed, as described below, the Court finds the intervening authority cited by Petitioner does not require granting his motion, Petitioner does not otherwise show the Ninth Circuit's decision was clearly erroneous and its enforcement would work a manifest injustice, and there have not been any subsequent trials where substantially different evidence was adduced. Id. And, even if considered on the merits, none of these grounds establishes “a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice.” Davis, 417 U.S. at 346 (quoting Hill, 368 U.S. at 428); see also Brecht, 507 U.S. at 637.

         The Ninth Circuit's ruling on these issues is binding, and the law of the case doctrine prohibits Petitioner from relitigating them in his § 2255 petition, particularly given Petitioner has not shown such re-litigation is warranted by exceptional circumstances, much less any substantive merit. Thus, these grounds - see ECF No. 155 at 49 (Ground 10A), 56 (Ground 10B), 60 (Ground 10C), 69 (Ground 11A), 87 (Ground 14) -are DENIED.

         B. Procedural Default

         Relatedly, claims that could have been, but were not, raised on direct appeal are not cognizable in § 2255 motions. See United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 165 (1982) (“[W]e have long and consistently affirmed that a collateral challenge may not do service for an appeal.); Sunal v. Large, 332 U.S. 174, 178 (1947) (“So far as convictions obtained in the federal courts are concerned, the general rule is that the writ of habeas corpus will not be allowed to do service for an appeal”); Unites States v. Dunham, 767 F.2d 1395, 1397 (9th Cir. 1985) (‚ÄúSection 2255 is not ...

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