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Caro v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 16, 2019

CESAR ADOLFO CARO, Petitioner,
v.
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND REHABILITATION, et al., Respondents.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          EDMUND F. BRENNAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Petitioner is a California state prisoner who, proceeding with counsel, brings an application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He was convicted in the Tulare County Superior Court of conspiracy to commit willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder pursuant to Pen. Code §§ 182(a)(1), 187. The instant habeas petition raises five claims, specifically: (1) the jury violated his rights by returning inconsistent verdicts; (2) the jury's inconsistent verdicts indicate that it was confused in its deliberations; (3) the trial court erred in failing to reject the verdict based on its inconsistency and evidence of juror confusion; (4) his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to advise him to accept favorable plea deals; and (5) his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to raise an objection after the jury returned its inconsistent verdict. For the reasons stated below, it is recommended that the petition be denied.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         I. The Shooting

         On June 27, 2012, Carlos Perez and his friend, Alejandro Lara, were driving around South Lake Tahoe. The pair spotted Jaheem Barton and Jamal Coffer at a Safeway grocery store. A prior altercation between Barton and one of Perez's cousins had resulted in bad blood between the two men. Matters between them were further aggravated by Perez's belief that Barton had given information to law enforcement which led to the former's conviction for burglary in 2010. Barton saw Perez and Lara drive by and gave a signal with his hands which appeared to challenge them to a fight. Perez decided against fighting Barton at that time, however, because the latter was with his girlfriend and child.

         After spotting Barton, Perez assembled others in preparation for a fight. He met and enlisted his cousins, Oscar and Efrain Villagomez. Perez also called petitioner and asked if he would help. Petitioner agreed to do so, and Perez picked him up.

         The group drove around searching for Barton and, ultimately found him walking down a street with a group of people. Perez told petitioner that they should get a weapon and the latter agreed. Perez had been planning to buy petitioner's handgun and, consequently, the weapon was at Perez's house. Perez retrieved the gun and petitioner loaded it. Perez told petitioner, in reference to Barton, that he “wanted to make the problem end.”

         Perez and petitioner drove back to the street where they had seen Barton. Lara and the Villagomez brothers were in a separate car directly behind them. Petitioner was in the forward passenger seat and nearest Barton. Petitioner told Perez he would shoot. As they drove closer and Barton's group began to scatter, petitioner asked Perez whether he should “hit someone or just scare them.” Perez told him to “do whatever.” Petitioner filed several shots at the fleeing group while Perez drove by.

         After the shooting, Perez sped away from the scene. Petitioner ultimately got out of Perez's car and into the one driven by Lara. Lara drove petitioner home and Perez disposed of the handgun by throwing it into a garbage dumpster.

         Perez was arrested the following day. He initially claimed that he had been alone and had not stopped because Barton was with a large group. Later, he admitted involvement in the shooting, but claimed that Barton had actually shot at him first. He also told investigators that petitioner had been armed when he first picked him up.

         Petitioner discarded his cell phone at some point after the shooting and obtained a new one. The new phone was seized when he was arrested. Recovered text messages sent approximately one month after the shooting captured the following exchange:

Petitioner: “Did you see that car with the nigger came off [sic], the one driving was one of the black guys who was there when I shot at them.”
Petitioner's Girlfriend: “Really? Do you think they recognized you?”
Petitioner: “IDK [I don't know]. That's why I told you to go inside. Fuck all that. Ha ha.”

         II. Defense Case

         Petitioner testified that, on the day of the shooting, Perez had sent him a text asking if he would “have his back” in a fight. Perez told petitioner that Barton had challenged him to fight; the latter testified that he understood this to mean a fistfight. Perez picked petitioner up and, at some point, petitioner noticed that Perez had a handgun on his waistband. Petitioner testified that he urged Perez not to use it. He also claimed that the two never stopped at Perez's house, but only “passed by.”

         When Barton's group was spotted, Perez ordered petitioner to shoot at them. Petitioner testified that he refused to do so. Perez then threatened harm to petitioner and his family if he ever told anyone about what Perez was about to do. Petitioner moved from the front passenger seat to the rear of the vehicle. Perez shot at the group and drove away from the scene. They returned to Perez's house and did not speak of the shooting. Petitioner then went home.

         Petitioner also testified that he did not own the gun involved in the shooting and had never seen it before that day. He characterized the decision to dispose of his old cellphone as a severing of ties with Perez, because it had been given to him by the latter. Petitioner explained the texts to his girlfriend by stating that Perez had told him to take the blame for the shooting.

         III. Trial Outcome

         Petitioner was charged with conspiracy to commit first degree murder (Pen. Code, §§ 182, subd. (a)(1); 187, subd. (a)) and attempted first degree murder (§§ 664; 187, subd. (a)). He was also charged with using a firearm in connection with the foregoing counts (§§ 12022.53, subd. (b) & 12022.5, subd. (a)). Finally, it was alleged that petitioner had sustained a prior “strike” conviction.

         The jury found petitioner guilty of the conspiracy charge. It found neither firearm enhancement to be true. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the attempted murder charge and a mistrial was declared on that count.

         STANDARDS GOVERNING HABEAS RELIEF UNDER THE AEDPA

         I. Applicable Statutory Provisions

         28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), provides in relevant part as follows:

(d) 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.

         Section 2254(d) constitutes a “constraint on the power of a federal habeas court to grant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus.” (Terry) Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). It does not, however, “imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review, ” or “by definition preclude relief.” Miller El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). If either prong (d)(1) or (d)(2) is satisfied, the federal court may grant relief based on a de novo finding of constitutional error. See Frantz v. Hazey, 533 F.3d 724, 736 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc).

         The statute applies whenever the state court has denied a federal claim on its merits, whether or not the state court explained its reasons. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99-100 (2011). State court rejection of a federal claim will be presumed to have been on the merits absent any indication or state law procedural principles to the contrary. Id. at 784-785 (citing Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 265 (1989) (presumption of a merits determination when it is unclear whether a decision appearing to rest on federal grounds was decided on another basis)). “The presumption may be overcome when there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court's decision is more likely.” Id. at 785.

         A. “Clearly Established Federal Law

         The phrase “clearly established Federal law” in § 2254(d)(1) refers to the “governing legal principle or principles” previously articulated by the Supreme Court. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 7172 (2003). Only Supreme Court precedent may constitute “clearly established Federal law, ” but courts may look to circuit law “to ascertain whether . . . the particular point in issue is clearly established by Supreme Court precedent.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. 58, 64 (2013).

         B. “Contrary To” Or “Unreasonable Application Of” Clearly Established Federal Law

         Section 2254(d)(1) applies to state court adjudications based on purely legal rulings and mixed questions of law and fact. Davis v. Woodford, 384 F.3d 628, 637 (9th Cir. 2003). The two clauses of § 2254(d)(1) create two distinct exceptions to AEDPA's limitation on relief. Williams, 529 U.S. at 404-05 (the “contrary to” and “unreasonable application” clauses of (d)(1) must be given independent effect, and create two categories of cases in which habeas relief remains available).

         A state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if the decision “contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases.” Id. at 405. This includes use of the wrong legal rule or analytical framework. “The addition, deletion, or alteration of a factor in a test established by the Supreme Court also constitutes a failure to apply controlling Supreme Court law under the ‘contrary to' clause of the AEDPA.” Benn v. Lambert, 283 F.3d 1040, 1051 n.5 (9th Cir. 2002). See, e.g., Williams, 529 U.S. at 391, 39395 (Virginia Supreme Court's ineffective assistance of counsel analysis “contrary to” Strickland[1] because it added a third prong unauthorized by Strickland); Crittenden v. Ayers, 624 F.3d 943, 954 (9th Cir. 2010) (California Supreme Court's Batson[2] analysis “contrary to” federal law because it set a higher bar for a prima facie case of discrimination than established in Batson itself); Frantz, 533 F.3d at 734 35 (Arizona court's application of harmless error rule to Faretta[3] violation was contrary to U.S. Supreme Court holding that such error is structural). A state court also acts contrary to clearly established federal law when it reaches a different result from a Supreme Court case despite materially indistinguishable facts. Williams, 529 U.S. at 406, 41213; Ramdass v. Angelone, 530 U.S. 156, 16566 (2000) (plurality op'n).

         A state court decision “unreasonably applies” federal law “if the state court identifies the correct rule from [the Supreme Court's] cases but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 407 08. It is not enough that the state court was incorrect in the view of the federal habeas court; the state court decision must be objectively unreasonable. Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 52021 (2003). This does not mean, however, that the § (d)(1) exception is limited to applications of federal law that “reasonable jurists would all agree is unreasonable.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 409 (rejecting Fourth Circuit's overly restrictive interpretation of “unreasonable application” clause). State court decisions can be objectively unreasonable when they interpret Supreme Court precedent too restrictively, when they fail to give appropriate consideration and weight to the full body of available evidence, and when they proceed on the basis of factual error. See, e.g., Williams, 529 U.S. at 397-98; Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 526 28 & 534; Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 388909 (2005); Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30, 42 (2009).

         The “unreasonable application” clause permits habeas relief based on the application of a governing principle to a set of facts different from those of the case in which the principle was announced. Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 76. AEDPA does not require a nearly identical fact pattern before a legal rule must be applied. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 953 (2007). Even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner. Id. In such cases, AEDPA deference does not apply to the federal court's adjudication of the claim. Id. at 948.

         Review under § 2254(d) is limited to the record that was before the state court. Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011). The question at this stage is whether the state court reasonably applied clearly established federal law to the facts before it. Id. In other words, the focus of the § 2254(d) inquiry is “on what a state court knew and did.” Id. at 1399.

         Where the state court's adjudication is set forth in a reasoned opinion, § 2254(d)(1) review is confined to “the state court's actual reasoning” and “actual analysis.” Frantz, 533 F.3d at 738 (emphasis in original). A different rule applies where the state court rejects claims summarily, without a reasoned opinion. In Harrington, supra, the Supreme Court held that when a state court denies a claim on the merits but without a reasoned opinion, the federal habeas court must determine what arguments or theories may have supported the state court's decision, and subject those arguments or theories to § 2254(d) scrutiny. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 101-102.

         C. “Unreasonable Determination Of The Facts

         Relief is also available under AEDPA where the state court predicated its adjudication of a claim on an unreasonable factual determination. Section 2254(d)(2). The statute explicitly limits this inquiry to the evidence that was before the state court.

         Even factual determinations that are generally accorded heightened deference, such as credibility findings, are subject to scrutiny for objective reasonableness under § 2254(d)(2). For example, in Miller El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005), the Supreme Court ordered habeas relief where the Texas court had based its denial of a Batson claim on a factual finding that the prosecutor's asserted race neutral reasons for striking African American jurors were true. Miller El, 545 U.S. at 240.

         An unreasonable determination of facts exists where, among other circumstances, the state court made its findings according to a flawed process - for example, under an incorrect legal standard, or where necessary findings were not made at all, or where the state court failed to consider and weigh relevant evidence that was properly presented to it. See Taylor v. Maddox, 366 F.3d 992, 9991001 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 1038 (2004). Moreover, if “a state court makes evidentiary findings without holding a hearing and giving petitioner an opportunity to present evidence, such findings clearly result in a ‘unreasonable determination' of the facts” within the meaning of § 2254(d)(2). Id. at 1001; accord Nunes v. Mueller, 350 F.3d 1045, 1055 (9th Cir. 2003) (state court's factual findings must be deemed unreasonable under section 2254(d)(2) because “state court . . . refused Nunes an evidentiary hearing” and findings consequently “were made without . . . a hearing”), cert. denied, 543 ...


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