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Allen v. Secretary of The Florida Department of Corrections

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

May 29, 2018

CLARENCE ALLEN, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY OF THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Status

         Petitioner, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this case by filing a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. 1) (Petition). On October 25, 2011, after pleading nolo contendere to DUI manslaughter, DUI resulting in serious bodily injury, and DUI with injury or property damage, Petitioner was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment to be followed by five years of probation. He challenges his judgment of conviction (Baker County) by raising four claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Respondents filed an Amended Answer (Doc. 22) with exhibits (Docs. 22-1 through 22-5) (Ex.). Petitioner filed a Reply (Doc. 26). This case is ripe for review.[1]

         II. Governing Legal Principles

         A. Standard of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (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)).

         The first task of the federal habeas court is to identify the last state court decision, if any, that adjudicated the petitioner's claims on the merits. See Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1285 (11th Cir. 2016). 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 Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 100 (2011). Where the state court's adjudication on the merits is unaccompanied by an explanation,

the federal court should “look through” the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning. But the State may rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state court's decision, such as alternative grounds for affirmance that were briefed or argued to the state supreme court or obvious in the record it reviewed.

Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018).

         When a state court has adjudicated a petitioner's claims on the merits, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief unless the state court's adjudication of the claim was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” or “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)(1), (2). A state court's factual findings are “presumed to be correct” unless rebutted “by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. § 2254(e)(1).

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, 773 (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. [at 102] (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) (internal citations modified).

         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); 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. 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. 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.[]
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. It is not enough “to show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” Id. at 693. 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.

Richter, 562 U.S. at 104; Marshall, 828 F.3d at 1284 (recognizing that to proceed on a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, “the petitioner has to show both that his counsel's performance was deficient and that that deficient performance was prejudicial-that is, that there is a ‘reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'” (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. At 687, 694)). 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.” Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1163 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000)).

         The Strickland test also applies to challenges to guilty pleas. “‘[C]ounsel owes a lesser duty to a client who pleads guilty than to one who decides to go to trial, and in the former case counsel need only provide his client with an understanding of the law in relation to the facts, so that the accused may make an informed and conscious choice between accepting the prosecution's offer and going to trial.'” Stano v. Dugger, 921 F.2d 1125, 1151 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting Wofford v. Wainwright, 748 F.2d 1505, 1508 (11th Cir.1984) (per curiam)). “An attorney's responsibility is to investigate and to evaluate his client's options in the course of the subject legal proceedings and then to advise the client as to the merits of each.” Id. The prejudice prong “focuses on whether counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process. In other words, . . . to satisfy the ‘prejudice' requirement, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985); see Lynch v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 776 F.3d 1209, 1218 (11th Cir. 2015).

         “‘The standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both highly deferential, and when the two apply in tandem, review is doubly so.'” Marshall, 828 F.3d at 1285 (quoting Overstreet v. Warden, 811 F.3d 1283, 1287 (11th Cir. 2016)).

“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 (2009) (quotation marks omitted). If there is “any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard, ” ...

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