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Watts v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

May 12, 2017

MARION E. WATTS, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          BRIAN J. DAVIS United States District Judge

         I. Status

         Petitioner Marion E. Watts, an inmate of the Florida penal system proceeding pro se, challenges his 2009 state court (Duval County) conviction for aggravated battery (no weapon). See Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (Petition) (Doc. 1). Watts also filed an Appendix (Pet. App.) (Doc. 2) and a Memorandum of Law (Pet. Memo.) (Doc. 3). Respondents filed an Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response) (Doc. 16), with exhibits in support thereof (Resp. Ex.)[1]. Watts filed a Reply to Respondent's Response (Reply) (Doc. 22).

         II. Procedural History

         By amended information, the State charged Watts in count one with aggravated battery upon Kevin Miller with a firearm and in count two with possession of a firearm by a juvenile delinquent found to have committed a felony act. Resp. Ex. 2. Trial proceedings on count one commenced and concluded on April 28, 2009. Resp. Ex. 4. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of aggravated battery with a finding that Watts did not actually possess a firearm during the commission of the offense. Resp. Ex. 6.[2] Watts filed a motion for new trial which was denied at sentencing on June 3, 2009. Resp. Exs. 7, 8. The court sentenced Watts to fifteen years incarceration with credit for 621 days time served. Resp. Ex. 9.

         Watts appealed to the First District Court of Appeal (First DCA). Resp. Ex. 10. Through counsel, Watts filed an initial brief in the appellate court (Resp. Ex. 11), the State filed an answer brief (Resp. Ex. 12), and Watts filed a reply brief (Resp. Ex. 13). Without written opinion, the First DCA per curiam affirmed Watts' judgment of conviction and sentence on August 11, 2010. Resp. Ex. 14. Watts v. State, 41 So.3d 900 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (table).

         Watts filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. Resp. Ex. 17. The State filed a response thereto. Resp. Ex. 18. Attaching the State's response, the circuit court summarily denied Watts' Rule 3.850 motion without evidentiary hearing, noting that “the record conclusively establishes that the Defendant is not entitled to the relief requested.” Resp. Ex. 19.

         Watts appealed the denial of his Rule 3.850 motion to the First DCA (Resp. Ex. 20), and filed a pro se initial brief. Resp. Ex. 21. The State filed notice that it would not file an answer brief. Resp. Ex. 22. The First DCA per curiam affirmed the summary denial of postconviction relief (Resp. Ex. 23), and denied Watts' pro se motion for rehearing without comment. Resp. Ex. 24.

         Watts filed a pro se state petition for writ of habeas corpus in the First DCA alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel on direct appeal of his judgment of conviction and sentence. Resp. Ex. 15. The First DCA denied per curiam Watts' petition “on the merits” but without discussion. Resp. Ex. 16; Watts v. State, 51 So.3d 609 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010).

         Watts filed a pro se postconviction motion in the state circuit court pursuant to Rule 3.800(a) (Resp. Ex. 25), which the court summarily denied (Resp. Ex. 26). Watts appealed (Resp. Ex. 27), and filed a pro se initial brief (Resp. Ex. 28). The First DCA per curiam affirmed the denial of postconviction relief without opinion. Resp. Ex. 29; Watts v. State, 132 So.3d 230 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014) (table).

         III. Evidentiary Hearing

         “In deciding whether to grant an evidentiary hearing, a federal court must consider whether such a hearing could enable an applicant to prove the petition's factual allegations, which, if true, would entitle the applicant to federal habeas relief.” Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007) (citation omitted). “It follows that if the record refutes the applicant's factual allegations or otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing.” Id. The pertinent facts of this case are fully developed in the record before the Court. Because this Court can “adequately assess [Petitioner's] claim[s] without further factual development, ” Turner v. Crosby, 339 F.3d 1247, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), an evidentiary hearing will not be conducted.

         IV. Cognizability, Exhaustion and Procedural Default

         A. Cognizability

         Federal habeas review “is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 68 (1991) (citations omitted). As such, federal habeas “does not lie for errors of state law.” Id. at 67 (quotations omitted). “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.” Id. at 67-68. As such, federal courts may not review claims based exclusively on state law issues even if the claims are “couched in terms of equal protection and due process.” Branan v. Booth, 861 F.2d 1507, 1508 (11th Cir. 1988) (quotation omitted).

         B. Exhaustion

         Before bringing a § 2254 habeas action in federal court, a petitioner must exhaust all state court remedies that are available for challenging his state conviction. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c). To exhaust state remedies, the petitioner must “fairly present[ ]” every issue raised in his federal petition to the state's highest court, either on direct appeal or on collateral review. Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989) (emphasis omitted). As the United States Supreme Court has explained:

Before seeking a federal writ of habeas corpus, a state prisoner must exhaust available state remedies, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1), thereby giving the State the “‘“opportunity to pass upon and correct” alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights.'” Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365, 115 S.Ct. 887, 130 L.Ed.2d 865 (1995) (per curiam) (quoting Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275, 92 S.Ct. 509, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971)). To provide the State with the necessary “opportunity, ” the prisoner must “fairly present” his claim in each appropriate state court (including a state supreme court with powers of discretionary review), thereby alerting that court to the federal nature of the claim. Duncan, supra, at 365-366, 115 S.Ct. 887; O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144 L.Ed.2d 1 (1999).

Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004); see also O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999) (“[S]tate prisoners must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process.”)

         The petitioner must present the claim to the state courts as a federal, constitutional claim rather than as a matter of state law. See Duncan, 513 U.S. at 365-66; French v. Warden, Wilcox State Prison, 790 F.3d 1259, 1270-71 (11th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 815 (2016); Preston v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 785 F.3d 449, 456-59 (11th Cir. 2015); Lucas v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 682 F.3d 1342, 1352 (11th Cir. 2012); McNair v. Campbell, 416 F.3d 1291, 1303 (11th Cir. 2005). To do so, a petitioner could include “the federal source of law on which he relies or a case deciding such a claim on federal grounds, or [ ] simply label[ ] the claim ‘federal.'” Baldwin, 541 U.S. at 32. But raising a state law claim that “is merely similar to the federal habeas claim is insufficient to satisfy the fairly presented requirement.” Duncan, 513 U.S. at 366. Likewise, merely citing to the federal constitution is insufficient to exhaust a claim in state court. Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 7 (1983); see also McNair, 416 F.3d at 1302 (“‘The exhaustion doctrine requires a habeas applicant to do more than scatter some makeshift needles in the haystack of the state court record.'”) (quoting Kelley v. Sec'y for the Dep't of Corr., 377 F.3d 1317, 1343-44 (11th Cir. 2004)). As explained by the Eleventh Circuit:

To “fairly present” a claim, the petitioner is not required to cite “book and verse on the federal constitution.” Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 278, 92 S.Ct. 509, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971) (quotation omitted). Nevertheless, a petitioner does not “fairly present” a claim to the state court “if that court must read beyond a petition or a brief (or a similar document) that does not alert it to the presence of a federal claim in order to find material, such as a lower court opinion in the case, that does so.” Baldwin, 541 U.S. at 32, 124 S.Ct. 1347. In other words, “to exhaust state remedies fully the petitioner must make the state court aware that the claims asserted present federal constitutional issues.” Jimenez v. Fla. Dep't of Corr., 481 F.3d 1337, 1342 (11th Cir.2007) (quoting Snowden v. Singletary, 135 F.3d 732, 735 (11th Cir.1998)) (concluding that the petitioner's claims were raised where the petitioner had provided enough information about the claims (and citations to Supreme Court cases) to notify the state court that the challenges were being made on both state and federal grounds).

Lucas, 682 F.3d at 1352. “The crux of the exhaustion requirement is simply that the petitioner must have put the state court on notice that he intended to raise a federal claim.” Preston, 785 F.3d at 457 (11th Cir. 2015); see also French, 790 F.3d at 1270-71. To do so, petitioners must “present their claims to the state courts such that the reasonable reader would understand each claim's particular legal basis and specific factual foundation.” Kelley, 377 F.3d at 1344-45 (citing Picard, 404 U.S. at 277).

It is not sufficient merely that the federal habeas petitioner has been through the state courts, Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275-76, 92 S.Ct. 509, 512, 30 L.Ed.2 438 (1971), nor is it sufficient that all the facts necessary to support the claim were before the state courts or that a somewhat similar state-law claim was made, Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 6, 103 S.Ct. 276, 277, 74 L.Ed.2d 3 (1982) (citations omitted). The petitioner must present his claims to the state courts such that they are permitted the “opportunity to apply controlling legal principles to the facts bearing upon (his) constitutional claim.” Picard, 404 U.S. at 277, 92 S.Ct. at 513 (alteration in original).

Id. at 1344. “In sum, to preserve a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for federal review, the habeas petitioner must assert this theory of relief and transparently present the state courts with the specific acts or omissions of his lawyers that resulted in prejudice.” Id. Thus,

[f]ederal habeas petitioners are undoubtedly on their strongest footing with regard to the exhaustion requirement when their federal claims are carbon copies of the claims they presented to the state courts. Such reproduction leaves no question that the claims presented to the federal court are the same as those that were presented to the state court. But we do not demand exact replicas. We recognize that habeas petitioners are permitted to clarify the arguments presented to the state courts on federal collateral review provided that those arguments remain unchanged in substance.

Id.

         C. Procedural Default and Exceptions

         “[W]hen ‘the petitioner fails to raise the [federal] claim in state court and it is clear from state law that any future attempts at exhaustion would be futile, ” the failure also constitutes a procedural bar. Owen v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 568 F.3d 894, 908 n.9 (11thCir. 2009) (quotation omitted); see also McNair, 416 F.3d at 1305 (citing Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 735 n.1 (1991)); see also Boerckel, 526 U.S. at 848; Vazquez v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 827 F.3d 964, 966 (11th Cir. 2016). Smith v. Jones, 256 F.3d 1135, 1138 (11th Cir. 2001) (“The teeth of the exhaustion requirement comes from its handmaiden, the procedural default doctrine.”). Federal habeas review is typically precluded. Pope, 680 F.3d at 1284; Smith, 256 F.3d at 1138. Nevertheless, a federal court may still consider the claim if a state habeas petitioner can show either (1) cause for and actual prejudice from the default; or (2) a fundamental miscarriage of justice. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991); Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1157 (11th Cir. 2010).

         “To show cause, the petitioner must demonstrate ‘some objective factor external to the defense' that impeded his effort to raise the claim properly in state court.”[3] Id. (quoting Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 488 (1986)). “[T]o show prejudice, a petitioner must demonstrate that ‘the errors at trial actually and substantially disadvantaged his defense so that he was denied fundamental fairness.'” Id. (quoting McCoy v. Newsome, 953 F.2d 1252, 1261 (11th Cir. 1992) (per curiam)).

         In the absence of a showing of cause and prejudice, a petitioner may receive consideration on the merits of a procedurally defaulted claim if he can establish a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Ward, 592 F.3d at 1157. “To meet this standard, a petitioner must ‘show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him' of the underlying offense.” Johnson v. Alabama, 256 F.3d 1156, 1171 (11th Cir. 2001) (quoting Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327 (1995)), cert. denied, 535 U.S. 926 (2002)). Additionally, “'[t]o be credible, ' a claim of actual innocence must be based on reliable evidence not presented at trial.” Calderon v. Thompson, 523 U.S. 538, 559 (1998) (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324). With the rarity of such evidence, in most cases, allegations of actual innocence are ultimately summarily rejected. Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324.

         V. Standard of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas corpus. See 28.U.S.C. § 2254; Ledford v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic & Classification Prison, 818 F.3d 600, 642 (11th Cir. 2016). “‘The purpose of AEDPA is to ensure that federal habeas relief functions as a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, and not as a means of error correction.'” Id. (quoting Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 38 (2011)).

         The first task of the federal habeas court is to identify the last state court decision, if any, that adjudicated the claim on the merits. See Wilson v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 834 F.3d 1227, 1235 (11th Cir. 2016) (en banc), cert. granted, Wilson v. Sellers, __ S.Ct. __, 2017 WL 737820 (Feb. 27, 2017) (No. 16-6855); Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1285 (11th Cir. 2016). Regardless of whether the last state court provided a reasoned opinion, “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.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99 (2011); see also Johnson v. Williams, __ U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 1096 (2013).[4] Thus, the state court need not issue an opinion explaining its rationale in order for the state court's decision to qualify as an adjudication on the merits. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 100; Wright v. Sec'y for the Dep't of Corr., 278 F.3d 1245, 1255 (11th Cir. 2002).

         If the claim was “adjudicated on the merits” in state court, Section 2254(d) bars relitigation of the claim, subject only to the exceptions in §§ 2254(d)(1) and (d)(2). Richter, 562 U.S. at 98. As the Eleventh Circuit explained:

First, § 2254(d)(1) provides for federal review for claims of state courts' erroneous legal conclusions. As explained by the Supreme Court in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000), § 2254(d)(1) consists of two distinct clauses: a “contrary to” clause and an “unreasonable application” clause. The “contrary to” clause allows for relief 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.” Id. at 413, 120 S.Ct. at 1523 (plurality opinion). The “unreasonable application” clause allows for relief only “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.” Id.
Second, § 2254(d)(2) provides for federal review for claims of state courts' erroneous factual determinations. Section 2254(d)(2) allows federal courts to grant relief only if the state court's denial of the petitioner's claim “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)(2). The Supreme Court has not yet defined § 2254(d)(2)'s “precise relationship” to § 2254(e)(1), which imposes a burden on the petitioner to rebut the state court's factual findings “by clear and convincing evidence.” See Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. __, __, 134 S.Ct. 10, 15, 187 L.Ed.2d 348 (2013); accord Brumfield v. Cain, 576 U.S. __, __, 135 S.Ct. 2269, 2282, 192 L.Ed.2d 356 (2015). Whatever that “precise relationship” may be, “‘a state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.'”[5] Titlow, 571 U.S. at __, 134 S.Ct. at 15 (quoting Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301, 130 S.Ct. 841, 849, 175 L.Ed.2d 738 (2010)).

Tharpe v. Warden, 834 F.3d 1323, 1337 (11th Cir. 2016); see also Daniel v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of Corr., 822 F.3d 1248, 1259 (11th Cir. 2016). Also, deferential review under Section 2254(d) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (regarding § 2254(d)(1)); Landers v. Warden, Att'y Gen. of Ala., 776 F.3d 1288, 1295 (11th Cir. 2015) (regarding § 2254(d)(2)).

         Where the state court's adjudication on the merits is “‘unaccompanied by an explanation, ' a petitioner's burden under section 2254(d) is to ‘show [ ] there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief.'” Wilson, 834 F.3d at 1235 (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 98). Thus, “a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or, as here, 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] Court.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102; see also Wilson, 834 F.3d at 1235; Marshall, 828 F.3d at 1285. To determine which theories could have supported the state appellate court's decision, the federal habeas court may look to a state trial court's previous opinion as one example of a reasonable application of law or determination of fact. Wilson, 834 F.3d at 1239; see also Butts v. GDCP Warden, 850 F.3d 1201, 1204 (11th Cir. 2017). However, in Wilson, the en banc Eleventh Circuit stated that the federal habeas court is not limited to assessing the reasoning of the lower court.[6] 834 F.3d at 1239. As such,

even when the opinion of a lower state court contains flawed reasoning, [AEDPA] requires that [the federal court] give the last state court to adjudicate the prisoner's claim on the merits “the benefit of the doubt, ” Renico [v. Lett, 449 U.S. 766, 733 (2010)] (quoting [Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002)]), and presume that it “follow[ed] the law, ” [Woods v. Donald, __ U.S. __, 135 U.S. 1372, 1376 (2015)] (quoting Visciotti, 537 U.S. at 24).

Id. at 1238; see also Williams, 133 S.Ct. at 1101 (Scalia, J., concurring).

         Thus, “AEDPA erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court.” Titlow, 134 S.Ct. at 16 (2013). “[E]ven a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102; see also Tharpe, 834 F.3d at 1338 (“Federal courts may grant habeas relief only when a state court blundered in a manner so ‘well understood and comprehended in existing law' and ‘was so lacking in justification' that ‘there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree.'”) (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 102-03). “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.

         VI. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         “The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants effective assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense counsel's performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and thereby prejudices the defense.” Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5 (2003) (per curiam) (citing Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 521 (2003), and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)).

To establish deficient performance, a person challenging a conviction must show that “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” [Strickland, ] 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052. A court considering a claim of ineffective assistance must apply a “strong presumption” that counsel's representation was within the “wide range” of reasonable professional assistance. Id., at 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052. The challenger's burden is to show “that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id., at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.
With respect to prejudice, a challenger must demonstrate “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id., at 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052. It is not enough “to show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” Id., at 693, 104 S.Ct. 2052. Counsel's errors must be ...

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