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Lee v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections

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

January 16, 2018

VALENTINO BERNARD LEE, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          MARCIA MORALES HOWARD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Status

         Petitioner Valentino Bernard Lee, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on January 29, 2015, pursuant to the mailbox rule, by filing a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Petition; Doc. 1) under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In the Petition, Lee challenges a 2011 state court (Duval County, Florida) judgment of conviction for burglary with assault or battery, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and aggravated assault. Respondents have submitted a memorandum in opposition to the Petition. See Respondents' Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response; Doc. 10) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). On February 6, 2015, the Court entered an Order to Show Cause and Notice to Petitioner (Doc. 5), admonishing Lee regarding his obligations and giving Lee a time frame in which to submit a reply. Lee submitted briefs in reply. See Petitioner's Answer (Doc. 14); Amended Answer (Doc. 15). This case is ripe for review.

         II. Procedural History

         On June 9, 2010, the State of Florida charged Lee with burglary with assault or battery (count one), possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (count two), and aggravated assault (count three). See Resp. Ex. 2, Information. Lee entered a guilty plea to the charges on April 27, 2011. See Resp. Exs. 4; 5, Transcript of the Plea Proceeding (Plea Tr.). In handwritten letters addressed to the trial court, see Resp. Exs. 6; 8A; 8B, Lee expressed his desire to withdraw his plea and obtain additional discovery. With the benefit of conflict counsel, Lee filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.170(f) on June 27, 2011. See Resp. Ex. 7. The court held an evidentiary hearing on August 3, 2011, see Resp. Ex. 9, Transcript of the Evidentiary Hearing (EH Tr.), and on August 11, 2011, denied the motions to withdraw the plea, see Resp. Ex. 11. Lee submitted another handwritten letter to the court on August 29, 2011. See Resp. Ex. 12. On August 30, 2011, the court sentenced Lee to a term of imprisonment of twenty-five years for count one, a term of imprisonment of twenty-five years for count two, and a term of imprisonment of ten years for count three, to run concurrently with each other. See Resp. Exs. 13, Transcript of the Sentencing Hearing (Sentencing Tr.) at 12; 15, Judgment.

         On direct appeal, Lee, with the benefit of counsel, filed an initial brief, arguing that the trial judge abused her discretion when she denied Lee's motions to withdraw his plea. See Resp. Ex. 17. The State filed an answer brief. See Resp. Ex. 18. On August 20, 2012, the appellate court affirmed Lee's conviction and sentence per curiam, see Lee v. State, 95 So.3d 218 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012); Resp. Ex. 19, and later denied Lee's motion for rehearing, see Resp. Ex. 21. The mandate issued on September 6, 2012. See Resp. Ex. 19.

         Lee filed pro se motions for post-conviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850 (Rule 3.850 motions) on November 30, 2012, see Resp. Ex. 22, March 1, 2013, see Resp. Ex. 23, and August 1, 2013, see Resp. Ex. 24. In his Rule 3.850 motions, he asserted that counsel (Scott D. Leemis) was ineffective because he failed to: interview and depose Gussie Lee, a key exculpatory witness (ground one); retrieve and investigate the victim's phone records (ground three), and cell phone messages that the victim left on Lee's cell phone (ground two); file a motion to dismiss and motion to conduct an adversary preliminary hearing (ground four); and conduct a reasonable pretrial investigation (ground five). He also stated that the court promised to sentence him to no more than ten years of imprisonment for both cases (the instant case, 2010-CF-3684, and his other case, 2010-CF-739).[1] On December 16, 2013, the court denied his Rule 3.850 motions. See Resp. Ex. 25. On appeal, Lee filed a pro se initial brief, see Resp. Ex. 27, and the State filed its notice that it did not intend to file an answer brief, see Resp. Ex. 28. On May 23, 2014, the appellate court affirmed the court's denial of post-conviction relief per curiam, see Lee v. State, 141 So.3d 185 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014); Resp. Ex. 29, and later denied Lee's motion for rehearing, see Resp. Ex. 30. The mandate issued on July 23, 2014. See Resp. Ex. 29.

         During the pendency of the post-conviction proceedings, Lee filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus on May 10, 2013. See Resp. Ex. 31. In the petition, Lee asserted that the State failed to establish probable cause for his arrest and committed manifest error because the State failed to file an information within twenty-one days of his arrest; he stated that the trial court erred when it failed to release him on his own recognizance. Additionally, he asserted that his plea was not voluntary. The circuit court denied the petition on January 16, 2014. See Resp. Ex. 32. On appeal, Lee filed a pro se initial brief, see Resp. Ex. 34, and the State filed its notice that it did not intend to file an answer brief, see Resp. Ex. 35. On May 1, 2014, the appellate court affirmed the court's denial of post-conviction relief per curiam, see Lee v. State, 139 So.3d 304 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014); Resp. Ex. 36, and later denied Lee's motion for rehearing, see Resp. Ex. 37. The mandate issued on June 25, 2014. See Resp. Ex. 36. On August 13, 2014, Lee filed a pro se notice to invoke discretionary jurisdiction. See Resp. Ex. 38. The Florida Supreme Court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction on August 26, 2014. See Resp. Ex. 39.

         III. One-Year Limitations Period

         The Petition appears to be timely filed within the one-year limitations period. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).

         IV. Evidentiary Hearing

         In a habeas corpus proceeding, the burden is on the petitioner to establish the need for a federal evidentiary hearing. See Chavez v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 647 F.3d 1057, 1060 (11th Cir. 2011). "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); Jones v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 834 F.3d 1299, 1318-19 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 2245 (2017). "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." Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474. The pertinent facts of this case are fully developed in the record before the Court. Because this Court can "adequately assess [Lee'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.

         V. Governing Legal Principles

         A. Standard of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas corpus. 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) (quotation marks omitted)). As such, federal habeas review of final state court decisions is "'greatly circumscribed' and 'highly deferential.'" Id. (quoting Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d 1335, 1343 (11th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks omitted)).

         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, 137 S.Ct. 1203 (2017); 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) (citation omitted); see also Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 301 (2013).[2] 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.

         If the claim was "adjudicated on the merits" in state court, § 2254(d) bars relitigation of the claim unless the state court's decision (1) "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) "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); Richter, 562 U.S. at 97-98. As the Eleventh Circuit has 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.'"[3] 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), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 2298 (2017); see also Daniel v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of Corr., 822 F.3d 1248, 1259 (11th Cir. 2016). Also, deferential review under § 2254(d) generally 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, 182 (2011) (stating the language in § 2254(d)(1)'s "requires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made"); 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. 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 Butts v. GDCP Warden, 850 F.3d 1201, 1204 (11th Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed, No. 17-512 (Sept. 29, 2017).[4] 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. 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, [5] 559 U.S. at 773, 130 S.Ct. 1855 (quoting Visciotti, [6] 537 U.S. at 24, 123 S.Ct. 357), and presume that it "follow[ed] the law, " Donald, [7] 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (quoting Visciotti, 537 U.S. at 24, 123 S.Ct. 357).

Id. at 1238.

         Thus, "AEDPA erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court." Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 16 (2013). "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.'" Tharpe, 834 F.3d at 1338 (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 102-03). "This standard is 'meant to be' a difficult one to meet." Rimmer v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 876 F.3d 1039. 1053 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 102). Thus, to the extent that Lee's claims were adjudicated on the merits in the state courts, they must be evaluated under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         "The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the effective assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense attorney'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.[8] 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 "so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Id., at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.

Richter, 562 U.S. at 104. The Eleventh Circuit has recognized "the absence of any iron-clad rule requiring a court to tackle one prong of the Strickland test before the other." Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1163 (11th Cir. 2010). Since both prongs of the two-part Strickland test must be satisfied to show a Sixth Amendment violation, "a court need not address the performance prong if the petitioner cannot meet the prejudice prong, and vice-versa." Id. (citing Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000)). As stated in Strickland: "If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course should be followed." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

         A state court's adjudication of an ineffectiveness claim is accorded great deference.

"[T]he standard for judging counsel's representation is a most deferential one." Richter, ___ U.S. at ___, 131 S.Ct. at 788. But "[e]stablishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is all the more difficult. The standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both highly deferential, and when the two apply in tandem, review is doubly so." Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted). "The question is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination under the Strickland standard was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable -a substantially higher threshold." Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123, 129 S.Ct. 1411, 1420, 173 L.Ed.2d 251 (2009) (quotation marks omitted). If there is "any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard, " then a federal court may not disturb a state-court decision denying the claim. Richter, ___ U.S. at ___, 131 S.Ct. at 788.

Hittson v. GDCP Warden, 759 F.3d 1210, 1248 (11th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2126 (2015); Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009). "In addition to the deference to counsel's performance mandated by Strickland, the AEDPA adds another layer of deference--this one to a state court's decision--when we are considering whether to grant federal habeas relief from a state court's decision." Rutherford v. Crosby, 385 F.3d 1300, 1309 (11th Cir. 2004). As such, "[s]urmounting Strickland's high bar is never an easy task." Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 (2010).

         VI. Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

         A. Ground One

         As ground one, Lee asserts that he involuntarily and unintelligently entered a guilty plea.[9] See Petition at 5. He states:

On April 27, 2011, Petitioner pleaded guilty to all counts. At the time of entering his pleas, Petitioner had not been permitted to review discovery materials, had not had time to fully consult with counsel, and was relying on defense counsel's representations in deciding to enter his pleas. As such, Petitioner entered his pleas without knowing the actual charges to which he was pleading, the significance of his plea, or the available alternatives. If Petitioner would have been properly advised by defense counsel as to available defenses, that he was pleading to all counts, or that he would receive such a harsh habitual offender sanction, he would not have entered pleas but instead insisted on proceeding to trial.

Id. Lee raised this claim in his pro se and counseled motions to withdraw the plea, see Resp. Exs. 6; 7, and the trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the issue, see EH Tr., at which Lee and Leemis (Lee's counsel at the time of the plea) testified. The trial court denied the motions and stated, in pertinent part:

This cause came on to be heard on August 3, 2011 on Defendant's Pro-Se Motion to Withdraw Plea of Guilty filed on June 6, 2011 by Defendant and his conflict-free counsel's Motion to Withdraw Plea of Guilty filed on June 27, 2011. Prior to the hearing, the Court reviewed both Motions and found many of Defendant's assertions were refuted by the record (Defendant's Plea of Guilty form and the transcript of Defendant's Plea Colloquy from April 27, 2011).[10] The Court found the hearing would be limited to those issues not clearly and conclusively refuted by the record: that Defendant had not received discovery; that Defendant was misled and misinformed as to the facts surrounding his case; and, that Defendant was unable to adequately review the documents in his case.[11]
The Court having reviewed both motions, having heard the testimony of Scott Leemis, [12] Esquire who represented Defendant at the time of his plea, and for fifteen (15) months prior to his plea and the testimony of the Defendant, [13] having observed the demeanor of the witnesses and evaluated their credibility and relied upon those observations and evaluations in determining the facts of this case, having reviewed the Plea of Guilty form and the Plea Colloquy, having heard the arguments of counsel, [14] having reviewed the relevant rules, statutes and case law, and being fully advised in the premises finds:
Defendant's plea was knowingly and voluntarily made with a full understanding of the consequences of his plea, Defendant had adequate time to consult with counsel, Defendant was aware of the charges to which he was pleading guilty, Defendant was not misled or misinformed as to the charges and facts surrounding his case and Defendant was not manipulated into pleading to all charges. Further, there was no good cause shown by Defendant.

Resp. Ex. 11 at 1-2. On appeal, Lee argued that the trial judge abused her discretion when she denied his motion to withdraw his plea, see Resp. Ex. 17; the State filed an answer brief, see Resp. Ex. 18; and the appellate court affirmed Lee's conviction and sentence per curiam, see Lee, 103 So.3d 149; Resp. Ex. 19.

         In its appellate brief, the State addressed the claim on the merits, see Resp. Ex. 18 at 10-16, and therefore, the appellate court may have affirmed Lee's conviction based on the State's argument. If the appellate court addressed the merits, the state court's adjudication of this claim is entitled to deference under AEDPA. After a review of the record and the applicable law, the Court concludes that the state court's adjudication of this claim was not contrary to clearly established federal law and did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Nor was the state court's adjudication based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceedings. Accordingly, Lee is not entitled to relief on the basis of this claim.

         Moreover, even assuming the state appellate court's adjudication of the claim is not entitled to deference, Lee's claim, nevertheless, is without merit. In the instant case, Lee signed the Plea of Guilty form, see Resp. Ex. 5, and acknowledged at the April 27, 2011 plea hearing that counsel had reviewed the form with him and answered his questions, see Plea Tr. at 9. The following colloquy ensued.

THE COURT: Do you wish to enter a plea of guilty in Case No. 2010-3684 to count 1, armed burglary with assault or battery, count 2, possession of [a] firearm by a convicted felon, and count 3, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, Your Honor.
THE COURT: Is that what you wish to do, to enter pleas of guilty?[15]
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: . . . .
In Case No. 2010-3684, the state has agreed to withdraw ....
[PROSECUTOR]: Actually, I don't think we ever even filed the PRR [(prison releasee reoffender)] notice.
THE COURT: Okay, would not file, sorry, the prison releasee reoffender notice, which would subject you to mandatory time. However, on count 1, an armed burglary with assault or battery, that is a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison -- [16]
[PROSECUTOR]: That's correct, Your Honor.
THE COURT: -- and as an habitual offender, of course, you would face life in prison.
Count 2, possession of a firearm by convicted felon is a second-degree felony. You would face the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.[17] And is there a minimum mandatory?
[PROSECUTOR]: There is, Your Honor, three years.
THE COURT: And there is a three-year minimum mandatory on that charge.
And on count 3, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, that is a third-degree felony.[18] You would face the maximum penalty of ten years in prison with a three-year minimum mandatory. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Do you also understand there is no agreement other than the fact that the state has agreed not to file the prison releasee reoffender notice, there is no other agreement as to what your sentence will be? I will order a presentence investigation report and pass your case approximately 30 days to get that report. And at sentencing both you and your attorney as well as the state can present whatever evidence and witnesses you wish the Court to consider to formulate an appropriate sentence. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: And no one has promised you a specific sentence; is ...

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