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Lopez v. Jones

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

April 27, 2017

ANGEL LOPEZ, Petitioner,
JULIE L. JONES, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, Respondent.



         THIS CAUSE is before the Court upon Petitioner Angel Lopez's (“Petitioner”) Petition to Vacate Judgment and Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, ECF No. [1] (the “Petition”), challenging his judgment and conviction entered in the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit Court in Broward County, Florida. The Court has carefully considered the Petition, all supporting and opposing filings, the relevant authority, and is otherwise duly advised in the premises. Because the Petition can be resolved on the basis of the record, an evidentiary hearing is not warranted. See Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473-474 (2007) (explaining that if the record refutes the factual allegations in the habeas petition or otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing). For the reasons that follow, the Petition is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case stems from an incident that took place during the late night hours of October 7, 2006, and into the early morning hours of October 8, 2006. At around 11:30 p.m. on October 7, 2006, Petitioner and a group of his friends and family were gathered in the parking lot of an arcade known as “Boomers.” The group was getting ready to leave the arcade when they were confronted by a group of several young men, one of whom was Yahtavian Bellamy (“Bellamy”). Bellamy and his group were in two separate vehicles-a silver Mitsubishi and a green Buick. This confrontation apparently stemmed from an earlier encounter that took place between Petitioner and one of the individuals in Bellamy's group. During the confrontation, Bellamy's group circled Petitioner's group in their two vehicles, and at least one of the vehicles swerved close to Petitioner's group. Additionally, individuals in both vehicles made insinuations to Petitioner's group that they were carrying weapons.

         Bellamy's group eventually left the parking lot area in their two vehicles along a two-lane road adjacent to the parking lot. Shortly thereafter, Petitioner's group left the parking lot area-also in two vehicles-along the same road. Another confrontation between the two groups then ensued. Individuals in Petitioner's group, traveling in a black SUV, passed both the Mitsubishi and the Buick, which was being driven by Bellamy, by driving over the grass on the side of the road. Petitioner, driving alone in a black Chevrolet Monte Carlo, was following the black SUV a short distance behind. At this point, Petitioner and Bellamy took turns swerving in front of one another with their respective vehicles. The confrontation finally came to an end when Petitioner, as Bellamy's vehicle slowed down or came to a stop in front of him, pulled up next to Bellamy in the left lane (heading in the wrong direction of travel), rolled down his passenger-side window, and fired a weapon he was carrying at the time thirteen to fourteen times at Bellamy's vehicle, hitting Bellamy in both of his legs.[1] Petitioner then drove off as Bellamy pulled over to the side of the road and fell out of his vehicle. Soon thereafter, Petitioner was arrested a short distance away by a police officer responding to the incident.

         Petitioner was subsequently charged by information with aggravated battery with a firearm (Count I) and discharging a firearm from a vehicle (Count II) in case number 06-cf- 17913. ECF No. [1-2] at 3. A jury found Petitioner guilty on both counts. Id. at 5. In accordance with the verdict, the trial court judge sentenced Petitioner to twenty years imprisonment on Count I and five years imprisonment on Count II, running consecutive to the sentence imposed on Count I, for a total sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment. See id at 7-12.

         Petitioner, through counsel, pursued a direct appeal raising three grounds for relief: (1) the trial court erred in denying defense counsel's request to use a peremptory challenge on a black juror; (2) the trial court erred in allowing the victim to display his injuries to the jury over the defense's objection; and (3) reversal for an evidentiary hearing on ineffective assistance of counsel was warranted. See id at 14-53. Upon review, the appellate court affirmed, rejecting the first two grounds without discussion and denying the third ground on the basis that, on direct appeal, the ineffective assistance of counsel claim was not properly raised. Id. at 55-56.

         Petitioner then filed a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850, raising three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel: (1) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to appropriately convey a ten-year plea offer to Petitioner; (2) trial counsel was ineffective for “failing to develop and utilize the defense of self defense”; and (3) trial counsel was ineffective based on cumulative errors-namely, by failing to conduct meaningful voir dire, relying upon an “invalid” defense of diminished capacity, and relying upon insanity as an affirmative defense. See Id. at 59-79. The State filed a response brief. See Id. at 82-87. The post-conviction court summarily denied the Rule 3.850 motion, adopting the reasoning set forth in the State's response brief. Id. at 81.

         Petitioner appealed the post-conviction court's decision. See Id. at 104. The appellate court reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on Petitioner's first claim-that trial counsel failed to appropriately convey to him a ten-year plea offer-and affirmed without discussion the post-conviction court's decision with respect to Petitioner's second and third claims. Id. at 104-05. The post-conviction court held the evidentiary hearing on December 4, 2013, and thereafter denied Petitioner's first claim. Id. at 107.

         Petitioner appealed the post-conviction court's decision, which the appellate court affirmed per curiam in an opinion issued on February 25, 2016. Id. at 109. Petitioner then filed the instant federal habeas Petition on December 1, 2016. ECF No. [1].

         II. APPLICABLE § 2254 LAW

         A. Deferential Review under AEDPA

         Because Petitioner filed his Petition after the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996), this Court's review of the Petition is governed by post-AEDPA laws. See Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233, 246 (2007); Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792 (2001); Davis v. Jones, 506 F.3d 1325, 1331, n.9 (11th Cir. 2007).

         Under the governing standard of review, habeas relief may not be granted with respect to a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court 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). “This is a difficult to meet[] and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that the state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011) (pointing out that “if [§ 2254(d)'s] standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be”).

         With respect to what constitutes an “adjudication on the merits, ” both the Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit employ broad interpretations. See Childers v. Floyd, 642 F.3d 953, 967-68 (11th Cir. 2011). For example, a state court's summary rejection of a claim, even without explanation, qualifies as an adjudication on the merits that warrants deference by a federal court. Id; see also Ferguson v. Culliver, 527 F.3d 1144, 1146 (11th Cir. 2008).

         For purposes of analyzing a state court's adjudication of a claim on the merits within the purview of “clearly established federal law, ” “[a] legal principle is ‘clearly established' within the meaning of [§ 2254(d)] only when it is embodied in a holding of [the United States Supreme] Court.” Thaler v. Haynes, 559 U.S. 43, 47 (2010); see also Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74 (2006) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)) (recognizing “[c]learly established federal law” consists of the governing legal principles, rather than the dicta, set forth in the decisions of the United States Supreme Court at the time the state court issues its decision). “A state court decision involves an unreasonable application of federal law when it identifies the correct legal rule from Supreme Court case law but unreasonably applies that rule to the facts of the petitioner's case, or when it unreasonably extends, or unreasonably declines to extend, a legal principle from Supreme Court case law to a new context.” Ponticelli v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 690 F.3d 1271, 1291 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The “unreasonable application” inquiry requires a federal habeas court to conduct the two-step analysis set forth in Harrington: first, the habeas court determines what arguments or theories support the state court decision, and second, the habeas court must determine whether “fair minded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior” Supreme Court decision. 562 U.S. at 86 (citations omitted).

         For purposes of analyzing a state court's adjudication of a claim on the merits in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding, whether a court errs in determining facts “is even more deferential than under a clearly erroneous standard of review.” Stephens v. Hall, 407 F.3d 1195, 1201 (11th Cir. 2005). A habeas court presumes the findings of fact to be correct, and the petitioner bears the burden of rebutting that presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

         Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are reviewed under the standards established by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Newland v. Hall, 527 F.3d 1162, 1183 (11th Cir. 2008). Post-AEDPA, the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), remains applicable to the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel raised in this case. See Newland, 527 F.3d at 1184.

         In Strickland, the Supreme Court established a two-part test to determine whether a convicted person is entitled to habeas relief on the grounds that his or her counsel rendered ineffective assistance: (1) whether counsel's representation was deficient-i.e., the representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” “under prevailing professional norms”- which requires a showing that “counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment”; and (2) whether the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant-i.e., there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different-which “requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” 466 U.S. at 688; see also Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U.S. 4, 8 (2009); Cullen, 563 U.S. at 189. “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. . . . [which] requires a substantial, not just conceivable, likelihood of a different result.” Cullen, 563 U.S. at 189 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “A habeas petitioner claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must carry his burden on both Strickland prongs, and a court need not address both prongs if the defendant has made an insufficient showing on one.” Osley v. United States, 751 F.3d 1214, 1222 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697, and Johnson v. Alabama, 256 F.3d 1156, 1176 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         States may “impose whatever specific rules . . . to ensure that criminal defendants are well represented, ” but “the Federal Constitution imposes one general requirement: that counsel make objectively reasonable choices.” Van Hook, 558 U.S. at 9 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The petitioner bears the heavy burden to “prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that counsel's performance was unreasonable.” Jones v. Campbell, 436 F.3d 1285, 1293 (11th Cir. 2006). A habeas court must “judge the reasonableness of counsel's conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct” and the judicial scrutiny applied “must be highly deferential[.]” Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 477 (2000) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689-90). The habeas court must adhere to a strong presumption that “counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. An attorney is not ineffective for failing to raise or preserve a meritless issue. Ladd v. Jones, 864 F.2d 108, 109-10 (11th Cir. 1989); United States v. Winfield, 960 F.2d 970, 974 (11th Cir. 1992) (“[A] lawyer's failure to preserve a meritless issue plainly cannot prejudice a client.”). “To state the obvious: the trial lawyers, in every case, could have done something more or something different. So, omissions are inevitable. But, the issue is not what is possible or ‘what is prudent or appropriate, but only what is constitutionally compelled.'” Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1313 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting Burger v. Kemp, 483 U.S. 776, 794 (1987)).


         The Petition raises three grounds for relief. Grounds One and Two present ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims, and Ground Three presents a due process violation claim. Respondent opposes relief on all three grounds. The Court will address each of Petitioner's claims in turn.

         A. Ground One

         Petitioner claims that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to develop and utilize the defense of self defense, arguing that the record in his case “amply supported self defense” in light of “substantial evidence that [he] had a reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent great bodily injury to himself.” ECF No. [1] at 15, 21. In support, Petitioner points to “several facts elicited by the defense [that] established that [he] acted in self defense.” Id. at 17. Specifically, according to Petitioner, the record reflects that Bellamy, the victim, was the initial aggressor. Id. (citing ECF No. [5-1] at 286, 301-02).[2] The defense witnesses all testified that Bellamy and his group “swerved” the two vehicles they were in at the time very close to Petitioner and Petitioner's group while Petitioner and Petitioner's group were standing in the Boomers parking lot. Id. (citing ECF No. [5-1] at 642). Shortly thereafter, Bellamy's group returned to where Petitioner's group stood in the parking lot and insinuated to Petitioner's group that at least some of them had a weapon. Id. at 18-19 (citing ECF No. [5-1] at 578-79, 611, 643, 716). “The two cars the victim and his friends were in [then] left the parking lot of Boomers only to continue to threaten and harass [Petitioner] and his group by completely blocking the exit road to them.” Id. at 19. Erica Jayska (“Jayska”), one of the defense witnesses, testified that upon attempting to exit the Boomers area in her vehicle-the black SUV-with the rest of Plaintiff s group, she was forced off the side of the exit road when Bellamy's vehicle swerved to hit her. Id. at 19-20 (citing ECF No. [5-1] at 612). Petitioner had been following behind Jayska alone in his vehicle and, moments after Jayska passed Bellamy's vehicle, Jayska observed in her rearview mirror Bellamy's vehicle swerving to hit Petitioner's vehicle and Petitioner having difficulty passing. Id. at 20 (citing ECF No. [5-1] at 615).

         Petitioner further argues that defense counsel's performance was deficient not only in that defense counsel failed to develop and utilize the defense of self defense, but also in that counsel affirmatively disavowed the defense of self -defense. Rather, defense counsel presented to the jury an insanity defense that was without any support in the record. See Id. at 23-24. In Petitioner's view, “[b]y presenting a defense that was not viable and affirmatively disavowing a defense amply supported by the record, counsel ensured that no defense would work.” Id. at 24 (emphasis omitted).

         By contrast, Respondent contends that the facts of this case are such that “this was a case that was virtually indefensible.” ECF No. [5] at 18. Respondent further asserts that defense counsel considered both self defense and insanity as possible defenses, and that it was reasonable for defense counsel to pursue the insanity defense-a decision agreed to by Petitioner-which was ultimately based on the testimony of an expert witness and Petitioner himself. See Id. at 18-19. Such a strategy, Respondent contends, “cannot be found to constitute ineffective assistance of counsel[, ]” especially where “the facts [] do not support self defense[.]” Id. at 22-23. As such, Respondent argues that Petitioner has failed to demonstrate either deficient performance or prejudice, and that the decisions of the State courts denying Petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim were neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. See Id. at 18, 23-24.

         In denying Petitioner relief on this ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the postconviction court adopted the reasoning set forth in the State's response brief. See ECF No. [1-2] at 81-87. The State argued in its response brief, in relevant part:

The State would note Defendant is correct the evidence from the State and Defense witnesses did not support a case for insanity. However, the State would argue the evidence also did not present a case for self defense . . . .
The transcripts reflect all of the witnesses testified the victim and his group were in their cars in close proximity to Defendant and his group. At one point, the victim may have confronted Defendant . . . . The witnesses for the Defendant claimed the victim and his group alluded to having some sort of weapon . . . . The confrontation ended, the victim and his group departed the area in which Defendant and his group were located and they were no longer a threat.
The testimony of the witnesses further established the shooting occurred on a roadway in close proximity to the initial encounter between the groups after the victim, who was in his own vehicle, and his friend in another vehicle blocked both lanes of traffic on that road. There is no evidence Defendant had to act in self defense . . . at the moment of the shooting. A dispute in the testimony was whether the victim simply blocked the road or if he swerved his vehicle, which could have resulted in a collision with Defendant's vehicle. However, there is no evidence Defendant or anyone else was in harm's way . . . .
Further, the State would argue the transcripts reflect Defendant agreed with the way in which counsel would present his case . . . [and that] Defendant even took the stand and testified consistently with this defense.
There is no evidence of any prejudice which resulted to the outcome of Defendant's case because the defense, as presented by Defendant through his own testimony, was consistent with what counsel represented to the Court. Defendant cannot blame counsel for presenting his case in this way especially since he ...

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