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Mancinas v. Pollard

United States District Court, N.D. California

January 3, 2020

MARCUS POLLARD, Acting Warden, [1]Respondent.


          YVONNE GONZALEZ ROGERS United States District Judge.


         Petitioner Christopher Mancinas, a state prisoner, is currently incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, pursuant to his judgments in three cases, People v. Christopher Mancinas, Sonoma County Superior Court Case Nos. SCR498868, SCR590577, and SCR595589. On April 16, 2012, in Case No. SCR595589, a Sonoma County jury convicted Petitioner of active participation in a criminal street gang (count four), which was in connection with the gang-related death of a non-gang member named Dewey Tucker, [2] with one strike prior conviction, one prior serious felony conviction, and two prior prison terms. See People v. Mancinas, No. A141759, 2017 WL 1422589, at *1-2 (Cal.Ct.App. Apr. 21, 2017, as modified on denial of reh'g, May 16, 2017). Meanwhile, on September 13, 2013, in Case No. SCR590577, Petitioner pleaded no contest to possession of methamphetamine for sale, transportation of methamphetamine, possession of cocaine, and possession of a firearm by a felon, with one strike prior conviction and prior prison term. See Id. at *1. Lastly, on December 4, 2013, in Case No. SCR498868, Petitioner pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and admitted one strike prior conviction. See Id. On April 9, 2014, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to an aggregate twenty-two years in prison for the three aforementioned cases.[3] Id. at 2.

         Petitioner brings the instant pro se habeas action under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 to challenge his conviction for actively participating in a criminal street gang in connection with Tucker's murder in Case No. SCR595589. Dkt. 1.

         Having read and considered the papers filed in connection with this matter and being fully informed, the Court hereby DENIES the petition for the reasons set forth below.


         The California Court of Appeal issued a published opinion, upholding in part and reversing in part the convictions of Petitioner's co-defendant, Raul Vega, [4] who was tried separately, in which it described in detail the facts concerning Tucker's murder on January 12, 2010. See People v. Vega, 236 Cal.App.4th 484, 487-89 (2015). Therefore, the Court of Appeal did not provide a more detailed recitation of the murder in its unpublished opinion affirming Petitioner's conviction and, instead, summarized the facts of Petitioner's offenses in limited context, as follows.[5]

No. SCR595589 involves the murder of Tucker, which was described in detail in a published opinion from this court, where we upheld in part and reversed in part the convictions of Raul Vega, a co-defendant of [Petitioner] who was tried separately. (See People v. Vega (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 484, 487-489 (Vega).)[FN5] We need not give a more detailed recitation of the murder here. Of course, for purposes of this appeal, we rely exclusively on the evidence presented at [Petitioner]'s trial, which differed significantly from the evidence presented at Vega's trial. We therefore will discuss: (1) the evidence presented by the district attorney in this case that we find to be sufficient to support [Petitioner]'s conviction under section 186.22, subdivision (a), and (2) the evidence [Petitioner] presented in his defense. Before doing so, we note three uncontroverted facts. First, there are two rival factions of the Sureños (a street gang controlled by the Mexican Mafia) in Santa Rosa, known as Varrio Sureño Loco (VSL) and Angelino Heights (AH). Second, [Petitioner] was a well-respected and active high-ranking member of the Sureños gang at the time of Tucker's murder, and although he claimed not to be a member of either AH or VSL, he had influence with both. And third, [Petitioner] was an FBI informant for about two years until June 2010, although [Petitioner] was not informed of his termination as an informant until October of that year.
[FN 5:] We cite Vega in lieu of a detailed recitation of background facts regarding the two rival subsets of the Sureños in Santa Rosa, the inter-gang hostilities that led up to Tucker's murder, the letter received by the police on January 12, 2010, identification of the participants in Tucker's murder, the location of the murder, and the manner in which he was killed. We do not rely upon it as evidence of [Petitioner]'s role in the events.
1. The District Attorney's Case
In early 2010, both gangs and the police were aware some feud or war was mounting between AH and VSL. For instance, on January 12, 2010, the police came into possession of a letter written by an imprisoned VSL member calling for the assassination of three senior members of AH, as well as [Petitioner]. This letter appeared to set the rest of the events into motion.
Based on circumstantial evidence and impeachment of [Petitioner]'s self-serving testimony, the district attorney argued [Petitioner] drove to Vallejo on January 12 with other AH members to have Vega kill Ramon Ochoa or Vicente Tapia, both high-ranking VSL members, in retaliation for the murder of Alejandro Ortega, a member of the AH gang, a few weeks earlier. That evening, [Petitioner] borrowed his girlfriend Nicole Allen's car; when he returned later that night, he told her to not talk to the police about it. The AH gang members thought Ochoa would be at Vicente Tapia's apartment complex on January 12. Once in Vallejo, [Petitioner] helped Vega and another AH member obtain a stolen vehicle to take to Tapia's apartment complex. Vega and his companion followed a white car leaving Tapia's apartment complex, believing Ochoa was the driver; [Petitioner] followed close behind. After following the white car onto the freeway, Vega ended up shooting Tucker, who was the actual driver and is not affiliated with any gang. Among other evidence, the district attorney used [Petitioner]'s cell phone records and expert witness testimony to place [Petitioner] at or near the scene of the crime.
For the next day or so following the murder, [Petitioner] spoke with another high-ranking Sureños member and close friend, Gerardo Hernandez, over a dozen times. In May 2010, police recovered a handgun from Hernandez's residence that was later believed to be the weapon used in Tucker's murder. The gun had been stolen from Arizona at or around a time when [Petitioner] and, later, Hernandez lived there, although there was no direct evidence tying either to the theft. [Petitioner] also knew where the stolen vehicle had been dumped. Expert witnesses testified that gang members generally know which other members have weapons, and believe the existence and handling of stolen cars are important.
2. [Petitioner]'s Defense
In his defense, [Petitioner] testified that on January 12 he was not aware of what Vega and the others were planning to do when they traveled together to Vallejo, nor when they chased after the white car (which turned out to be Tucker's) that left Tapia's apartment complex. Rather, [Petitioner] claimed he traveled to Vallejo to help broker a peace deal between the warring factions of the Sureños gang. Indeed, [Petitioner] testified that he and Ochoa (Vega's intended target) were “extremely close friends, ” so he would not have participated in trying to kill Ochoa. There was also evidence that [Petitioner] had given Ochoa's name to the FBI as a possible suspect in the killing of Ortega, which had started the AH-VSL feud. [Petitioner] denied helping steal the car Vega drove to kill Tucker, instead insisting another gang member had already stolen the car and offered it to Vega. In addition, [Petitioner] testified he was not at the scene when Vega shot at the white car, but did drive up to see the aftermath a few minutes later.

Mancinas, 2017 WL 1422589, at *2-3 (brackets added).


         Petitioner appealed his judgments in Case Nos. SCR498868, SCR590577, and SCR595589 to the California Court of Appeal, and the three criminal appeals were consolidated. Id. at *1. Petitioner raised no issues in the first case, Case No. SCR498868. Id. In Case No. SCR590577, Petitioner requested the state appellate court to reduce his conviction on one count of cocaine possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and remand for resentencing under Proposition 47. Id. And in Case No. SCR595589, Petitioner sought reversal of his conviction for actively participating in a criminal street gang under California Penal Code § 182.66(a) for lack of sufficient evidence. Id.

         On April 21, 2017, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Petitioner's judgments in an unpublished decision. Id. at *7. The state appellate court concluded Petitioner's appeals in Nos. SCR498868 and SCR590577 are procedurally barred and affirmed those convictions. Id. at *1. The state appellate court further concluded that substantial evidence existed to support the conviction in Case No. SCR595589 and affirmed the conviction in that case as well. Id. at *4-7.

         Thereafter, Petitioner filed a petition for review, and the California Supreme Court denied review on July 19, 2017. Resp't Ex. L. Petitioner did not pursue collateral review in state court.

         On October 11, 2018, Petitioner filed the instant petition, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Dkt. 1. Petitioner raises the same sufficiency of the evidence claim he raised on direct appeal as to his conviction in Case No. SCR595589. Id. at 5; Dkt. 1-1 at 53-61.[6]

         On November 28, 2018, this Court issued an Order to Show Cause. Dkt. 8. On February 27, 2019, Respondent filed an Answer. Dkt. 15. Petitioner has not filed a Traverse, and the time to do so has passed. The matter is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.


         A federal court may entertain a habeas petition from a state prisoner “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) of 1996, a district court may not grant a petition challenging a state conviction or sentence on the basis of a claim that was reviewed on the merits in state court unless 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). The first prong applies both to questions of law and to mixed questions of law and fact, see Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 407-09 (2000), while the second prong applies to decisions based on factual determinations, see Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003).

         A state court decision is “contrary to” Supreme Court authority, that is, falls under the first clause of section 2254(d)(1), only if “the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Williams (Terry), 529 U.S. at 412-13. A state court decision is an “unreasonable application of” Supreme Court authority, falling under the second clause of section 2254(d)(1), if it correctly identifies the governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions but “unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Id. at 413. The federal court on habeas review 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.” Id. at 411. Rather, the application must be “objectively unreasonable” to support granting the writ. Id. at 409.

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), a state court decision “based on a factual determination will not be overturned on factual grounds unless objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding.” See Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 340; see also Torres v. Prunty, 223 F.3d 1103, 1107 (9th Cir. 2000). Moreover, “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct, ” and the petitioner “shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         In determining whether a state court's decision is contrary to, or involves an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, courts in this Circuit look to the decision of the highest state court to address the merits of the petitioner's claim in a reasoned decision. See Wilson v. Sellers, __ U.S. __, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018); LaJoie v. Thompson, 217 F.3d 663, 669 n.7 (9th Cir. 2000). Moreover, “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct, ” and the petitioner “shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         Even if constitutional error is established, habeas relief is warranted only if the error had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.” Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 795-96 (2001) (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 638 (1993)).

         On federal habeas review, AEDPA “imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings” and “demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). In applying the above standards on habeas review, the Court reviews the “last reasoned decision” by the state court. See Robinson v. Ignacio, 360 F.3d 1044, 1055 (9th Cir. 2004).

         When there is no reasoned opinion from the highest state court to consider the petitioner's claims, the court looks to the last reasoned opinion. Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 801-06 (1991); Shackleford v. Hubbard, 234 F.3d 1072, 1079 n.2 (9th Cir. 2000). Thus, a federal court will “look through” the unexplained orders of the state courts rejecting a petitioner's claims and analyze whether the last reasoned opinion of the state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent. See Ylst, 501 U.S. at 804-06; LaJoie, 217 F.3d at 669 n.7. The last reasoned decision in this case is the state appellate court's unpublished disposition issued on April 21, 2017, which relates to Petitioner's claim in the petition. Mancinas, 2017 WL 1422589, at *4-7.

         V. LEGAL CLAIM

         Petitioner argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for actively participating in a criminal street gang under California Penal Code § 186.22(a). Dkt. 1 at 5. Specifically, he contends that-where the jury acquitted him of the three underlying felonies on which the prosecution relied to support the active gang participation-the evidence, consequently, was insufficient to establish the third requirement of the substantive gang offense pursuant to California Penal Code § 186.22(a). Dkt. 1-1, Ex. B at 59-61. Petitioner does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence as to the other elements of the substantive gang offense.

         A. State ...

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