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Fleming v. Secretary of Florida Department of Corrections

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

September 5, 2017

ALVA W. FLEMING, Petitioner,



         I. Status

         Petitioner, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this case by filing a pro se Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (Doc. 1) (Petition) on September 2, 2014. He is proceeding on an Amended Petition (Doc. 19) (Amended Petition), filed November 15, 2016.[1] He challenges a 2009 state court (Duval County) judgment of conviction for trafficking in cocaine and possession of more than twenty grams of cannabis. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence. Respondents contend that the Amended Petition is untimely and the three grounds raised do not relate back to the timely-filed Petition; alternatively, Respondents address the substance of the three claims. See Motion to Dismiss or Alternatively Supplemental Answer (Doc. 20) (Motion/Response).[2] Petitioner filed a Reply (Doc. 21) (Reply). The case is ripe for review.[3]

         II. Timeliness of Amended Petition

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) amended 28 U.S.C. § 2244 by adding the following subsection:

(d)(1) A 1-year period of limitation shall apply to an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court. The limitation period shall run from the latest of--
(A) the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review;
(B) the date on which the impediment to filing an application created by State action in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States is removed, if the applicant was prevented from filing by such State action;
(C) the date on which the constitutional right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if the right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or
(D) the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.
(2) The time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending shall not be counted toward any period of limitation under this subsection.

28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).

         Petitioner does not dispute Respondents' calculations that show the original Petition was timely filed, but the Amended Petition was not.[4] The Court has reviewed the calculations and agrees with Respondents' conclusion. Petitioner does not assert any basis for equitable tolling and upon review of the file, the Court finds equitable tolling is not warranted. Petitioner does, however, contend that the claims in the Amended Petition relate back to the claims in the original Petition.

         “An amendment to a pleading relates back to the date of the original pleading when . . . the amendment asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out--or attempted to be set out--in the original pleading.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(B). An amendment to a habeas petition may relate back “[s]o long as the original and amended petitions state claims that are tied to a common core of operative facts.” Mayle v. Felix, 545 U.S. 644, 664 (2005). A new claim, however, does not meet the standard and, thus, “does not relate back . . . when it asserts a new ground for relief supported by facts that differ in both time and type from those the original pleading set forth.” Id. at 650. The terms “conduct, transaction, or occurrence” are not synonymous with “trial, conviction or sentence.” Id. at 664.

         In the original Petition, Petitioner alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to: (1) depose and investigate material witnesses; (2) depose Detective Gonzales to confirm his position on the warrantless traffic stop; (3) object to hearsay statements of D.A. Bishop and obtain the identity of the confidential informant; and (4) suppress or dismiss the information and call certain named witnesses to corroborate his claim. See Petition at 5-10. He indicated that each ground was raised in his state court postconviction motion filed pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. See id. After reviewing the Respondents' initial response, Petitioner concluded that his claims were insufficiently pled, so he requested permission to file the Amended Petition. See Docs. 14, 15.[5] In his Amended Petition, he raises three grounds: (1) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and depose witnesses and present a viable defense; (2) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to depose and investigate three witnesses that Petitioner advised counsel to call on his behalf; and (3) the trial court erred by denying his motion for disclosure of the confidential informant's identity and to suppress physical evidence. See Amended Petition at 6-21.

         When determining whether a claim “relates back” to an earlier pleading,

[t]he key consideration is that the amended claim arises from the same conduct and occurrences upon which the original claim was based. . . . When the nature of the amended claim supports specifically the original claim, the facts there alleged implicate the original claim, even if the original claim contained insufficient facts to support it. One purpose of an amended claim is to fill in facts missing from the original claim.

Dean v. United States, 278 F.3d 1218, 1222 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam) (emphasis added).The Court finds that the first two claims in the Amended Petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel relate back to the original Petition. Although the claims in the original Petition were not artfully crafted, the Amended Petition “fill[s] in facts missing from the original claim[s].” Id. at 1222.

         The third claim in the Amended Petition is a closer call. Petitioner now attempts to raise a claim that the trial court erred by denying his motion for disclosure of the confidential informant's identity and to suppress physical evidence-a claim that he raised on direct appeal. The most similar claims in the original Petition were grounds three and four, where Petitioner argued his counsel was ineffective for failing to obtain the identity of the confidential informant and for failing to suppress or dismiss the information and call certain named witnesses to corroborate his claim-claims he raised in his postconviction proceeding. There can be no real dispute that a claim regarding trial court error is entirely different than a claim alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Nevertheless, at least part of the new claim regarding the identity of the confidential informant arguably arises from the same common core of operative facts. Given that it is arguable whether this claim relates back to the original Petition, the Court will address it.[6]

         III. Standard of Review

         AEDPA governs a state prisoner's federal habeas corpus petition. See Ledford v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic & Classification Prison, 818 F.3d 600, 642 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1432 (2017). “‘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)).

Under AEDPA, when a state court has adjudicated the petitioner's claim on the merits, a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the state court's decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding, ” id. § 2254(d)(2). A state court's factual findings are presumed correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.[7] Id. § 2254(e)(1); Ferrell v. Hall, 640 F.3d 1199, 1223 (11th Cir. 2011).
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 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)). The Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed lower federal courts that an unreasonable application of law requires more than mere error or even clear error. See, e.g., Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12');">540 U.S. 12, 18 (2003); Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 75 (“The gloss of clear error fails to give proper deference to state courts by conflating error (even clear error) with unreasonableness.”); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000) (“[A]n unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.”).

Bishop v. Warden, GDCP, 726 F.3d 1243, 1253-54 (11th Cir. 2013).

         “[A] federal court reviewing the judgment of a state court must first identify the last adjudication on the merits. It does not matter whether that adjudication provided a reasoned opinion because section 2254(d) ‘refers only to a decision' and does not ‘requir[e] a statement of reasons.'” Wilson v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 834 F.3d 1227, 1235 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S.Ct. 1203 (2017), (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. At 98). 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.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 99 (citation omitted). When the last 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). “‘[A] habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . 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.'” Id. (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 102).

When the reasoning of the state trial court was reasonable, there is necessarily at least one reasonable basis on which the state supreme court could have denied relief and our inquiry ends. In this way, federal courts can use previous opinions as evidence that the relevant state court decision under review is reasonable. But the relevant state court decision for federal habeas review remains the last ...

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