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Slaughter v. Secretary, Florida Dept. of Corrections

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

March 22, 2018




         Petitioner initiated this case by filing a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 1.) In his petition, Petitioner contends that his trial counsel was ineffective based on three grounds. (Id.) Respondent filed a response, ECF No. 13, along with relevant portions of the state-court record. (ECF Nos. 13-1-13-3.) Upon due consideration of the petition, response, and state-court record, the undersigned recommends that the petition be denied.[1]

         Summary of State-Court Proceedings

         In August 2011 Petitioner was charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling (Count 1) and grand theft (Count 2). (ECF No. 13-1 at 14.) Petitioner proceeded to a jury trial on his charges in February 2012, and he was found guilty as charged. (Id. at 37.) At sentencing, the trial court found that Petitioner qualified for sentencing as a Prison Releasee Reoffender, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Count 1 and five years in prison for Count 2, to run concurrent with the sentence for Count 1. (Id. at 55-64.)

         Petitioner filed a motion to correct illegal sentence under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(b)(2) in November 2012. (ECF No. 13-2 at 259-62.) The trial court denied that motion on November 13, 2012. (Id. at 266-67.)

         Petitioner filed a direct appeal to the First District Court of Appeal (“First DCA”) on November 30, 2012. (ECF No. 13-3 at 8-21.) The First DCA per curiam affirmed without opinion on July 3, 2013, and the mandate followed on July 19, 2013. (Id. at 32, 34.)

         Petitioner then filed multiple motions for post-conviction relief, which were stricken. (Id. at 41-124, 160-61.) The trial court ruled on his fourth amended motion for post-conviction relief, denying the motion on November 21, 2014. (Id. at 153-59.) Petitioner appealed the denial of his motion to the First DCA, which per curiam affirmed without opinion on February 26, 2015. (Id. at 218.) The mandate followed on March 24, 2015. (Id. at 217.)

         On June 12, 2014, Petitioner filed a petition alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel with the First DCA. (Id. at 219-27.) The First DCA denied this petition on the merits on July 3, 2014. (Id. at 238.)

         Petitioner then submitted the instant petition to prison officials for mailing on April 3, 2015. (ECF No. 1.)

         Section 2254 Standard of Review

         The role of a federal habeas court when reviewing a state prisoner's application pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is limited. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 403-04 (2000). Under section 2254(a), federal courts “shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgement of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”

         Additionally, federal courts must give deference to state court adjudications unless the state court's adjudication of the claim is “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).

         With regard to factual findings, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), a federal court may not grant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus based on a claim already adjudicated on the merits in state court unless that adjudication “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.” Under § 2254(e)(1), the petitioner must advance clear and convincing evidence that the state court's factual determination was “objectively unreasonable” to rebut the presumption that the determination was correct. Gill v. Mecusker, 633 F.3d 1272, 1287 (11th Cir. 2011); 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). “‘[A] state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.'” Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 15 (2013) (quoting Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010)).

         As to legal findings, as mentioned above, a petitioner is entitled to federal habeas relief only if the state court's adjudication of the merits of the federal claim “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.” § 2254(d)(1). “[C]learly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” refers only to holdings (rather than dicta) of the Supreme Court, but decisions of lower federal courts may be considered to the extent that they demonstrate how those courts applied Supreme Court holdings. Hawkins v. Alabama, 318 F.3d 1302, 1309 (11th Cir. 2003); see also Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74-77 (2006).

         “Under § 2254(d)(1)'s ‘contrary to' clause, we grant 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.'” Jones v. GDCP Warden, 753 F.3d 1171, 1182 (11th Cir. 2014) (alterations in original) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000)). For § 2254(d)(1), clearly established federal law includes only the holdings, not the dicta of Supreme Court decisions. White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014). “Under § 2254(d)(1)'s ‘unreasonable application' clause, we grant 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.'” Jones, 753 F.3d at 1182 (alteration in original) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 413).

         The Supreme Court has interpreted § 2254(d) as requiring that “a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). “[A]n ‘unreasonable application' of [Supreme Court] holdings must be ‘objectively unreasonable, ' not merely wrong; even ‘clear error' will not suffice.” Woodall, 134 S.Ct. at 1702. In other words, Petitioner must establish that no fairminded jurist would have reached the Florida court's conclusion. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 102-03; Holsey v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 694 F.3d 1230, 1257-58 (11th Cir.2012). “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.

         In light of Gill, the “unreasonable determination of facts” standard plays a limited role in habeas review because the district court considers the reasonableness of the trial court's fact-finding only to the extent that the state court's ultimate conclusion relied on it. 633 F.3d at 1292. A federal habeas court can consider the full record before it to answer “the only question” that matters: “whether the state court's determination [was] objectively unreasonable.” Id. at 1290.

         Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Because Petitioner's claims allege ineffective assistance, a review of the applicable law is necessary. Under Strickland v. Washington, to prevail on a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must demonstrate that (1) his counsel's performance was below an objective and reasonable professional norm, and (2) he was prejudiced by this inadequacy. Strickland, 466 U.S. 668, 686-96 (1984). The court may dispose of the claim if a defendant fails to carry his burden of proof on either the performance or the prejudice prong. Id. at 697.

         To show counsel's performance was unreasonable, a defendant must establish that “no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take.” Grayson v. Thompson, 257 F.3d 1194, 1216 (11th Cir. 2001) (emphasis omitted). “The relevant question is not whether counsel's choices were strategic, but whether they were reasonable.” Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 481 (2000). There are no “absolute rules” for determining whether counsel's actions were indeed reasonable, as “[a]bsolute rules would interfere with counsel's independence-which is also constitutionally protected-and would restrict the wide latitude counsel have in making tactical decisions.” Putnam v. Head, 268 F.3d 1223, 1244 (11th Cir. 2001). “To uphold a lawyer's strategy, [the Court] need not attempt to divine the lawyer's mental processes underlying the strategy.” Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1314 n.16 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). “No lawyer can be expected to have considered all of the ways [to provide effective assistance].” Id.

If a defense lawyer pursued course A, it is immaterial that some other reasonable courses of defense (that the lawyer did not think of at all) existed and that the lawyer's pursuit of course A was not a deliberate choice between course A, course B, and so on. The lawyer's strategy was course A. And [the Court's] inquiry is limited to whether this strategy, that is, course A, might have been a reasonable one.


         To show prejudice, a defendant must show more than simply that counsel's unreasonable conduct might have had “some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 693. Instead, a defendant must show a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 694. A ...

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