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Stewart v. Secretary

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

July 26, 2018

JOSEPH R. STEWART, Petitioner,



         This case is before the Court on Petitioner's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arising from his conviction for driving under the influence (“DUI”) manslaughter, DUI with serious bodily injury, and leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. (ECF No. 1.) Respondent filed a response with relevant portions of the state-court record, arguing that the Petition should be denied. (ECF No. 11.) The Petitioner did not file a reply brief and the time for doing so has expired. The Petition is otherwise ripe for review. Upon due consideration of the Petition, the response, and the state-court record, the undersigned recommends that the Petition should be denied.[1]

         State-Court Proceedings

         Petitioner was arrested on April 1, 2009, after fleeing from the scene of a vehicle accident and then getting into a second accident that caused the death of the driver of the other car and critical injuries to the other passengers of that car. (ECF No. 11-1 at 20-21.) Petitioner was charged by second amended information on December 3, 2009, with one count DUI manslaughter, two counts of DUI with serious bodily injury, one count of leaving the scene of a crash involving property damage, and DUI damage to property or person without serious injury. (Id. At 96-98.)

         That same day, Petitioner filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of the initial accident at trial, arguing the accidents were of such distance in both time and place that the first accident was not relevant to whether he caused the second accident. (Id. at 92-94.) Petitioner also argued that evidence of the first accident would be more prejudicial than probative because the facts were not so inextricably intertwined that they were necessary for the state to prosecute its case. (Id.). The trial court denied the motion at a hearing on April 9, 2010, however, finding that any prejudice in admitting the evidence did not outweigh its probative value. (ECF No. 11-3 at 47-73.)

         At a hearing on April 9, 2010, the prosecutor and Petitioner's counsel (“Counsel”) argued the motion. (ECF No. 11-3 at 47-73.) The trial court denied the motion, finding prejudice in admitting evidence did not outweigh the probative value. (Id. at 73).

         During the hearing, Petitioner also entered a no contest plea to count four: DUI damage to property or person not causing serious injury. (Id. at 39-45.)

         Petitioner proceeded to jury trial, and on April 26, 2010, the jury found Petitioner guilty as charged. (ECF No. 11-1 at 101-102.) Petitioner was sentenced to fifteen years on count one (DUI manslaughter), five years on count two (DUI with serious bodily injury), to be served consecutive to the sentence for count one, and three years (DUI with seriously bodily injury), to be served consecutive to the sentence in count one, and time-served on count four (leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. (ECF No. 11-2 at 75-82.) The State nolle prossed count five (DUI damage to property or person without serious injury). (Id.)

         Petitioner thereafter filed a notice of appeal to the First District Court of Appeals (“First DCA”). (ECF No. 11-3 at 3). In his initial brief on direct appeal Petitioner, through counsel, argued that the trial court committed reversible error in admitting evidence of the collateral crime of the leaving the scene of the first accident. (ECF No. 11-6 at 2-33.) The First DCA per curium affirmed without opinion on February 3, 2012, and the mandate followed on February 22, 2012. (Id. at 102.)

         On February 25, 2013, Petitioner filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief arguing he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. (ECF No. 11-7 at 12-33.) Petitioner thereafter filed an amended motion for postconviction relief, raising three grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. (Id. at 104-07; 111-207.) The circuit court summarily denied the motion on July 17, 2013. (ECF No. 11-8 at 4-11.)

         Petitioner thereafter appealed to the First DCA. (Id. at 78-79; 82-203.) The First DCA affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part for an evidentiary hearing as to grounds one and three of Petitioner's amended motion for postconviction relief. (ECF No. 11-9 at 11-13.)

         On remand, the circuit court held an evidentiary hearing on August 4, 2015. (ECF No. 11-10 at 68-129.) Then on February 3, 2016, the circuit court issued an order denying grounds one and three of Petitioner's amended motion for postconviction relief. (Id. at 28-38.) Petitioner appealed, but the First DCA per curiam affirmed without written opinion on May 22, 2017. (ECF No. 11-11 at 25.) The mandate followed on June 19, 2017. (Id. at 26.)

         Petitioner then filed his Petition in this Court on August 14, 2017. (ECF No. 1.)

         Section 2254 Standard of Review

         Before bringing a habeas action in federal court, a petitioner must exhaust all state court remedies that are available for challenging his conviction, either on direct appeal or in a state postconviction motion. 28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(b)(1), (c). Exhaustion requires that prisoners give the state courts a “full and fair opportunity” to resolve all federal constitutional claims by “invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process.” O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999). To properly exhaust a federal claim, a petitioner must “fairly present” the claim in each appropriate state court, thereby affording the state courts a meaningful opportunity to “pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights.” Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004) (quotation omitted).

         When a petitioner fails to properly exhaust a federal claim in state court, and it is obvious that the unexhausted claim would now be procedurally barred under state law, the claim is procedurally defaulted. Bailey v. Nagle, 172 F.3d 1299, 1303 (11th Cir. 1999). Federal habeas courts are precluded from reviewing the merits of procedurally defaulted claims unless the petitioner can show either (1) cause for the failure to properly present the claim and actual prejudice from the default, or (2) that a fundamental miscarriage of justice would result if the claim were not considered. Id. at 1302, 1306.

         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); see also § 2254(e)(1).

         As to legal findings, 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) (citations omitted) (“The decisions of other federal circuit courts (and our decisions for that matter) are helpful to the AEDPA inquiry only to the extent that the decisions demonstrate that the Supreme Court's pre-existing, clearly established law compelled the circuit courts (and by implication would compel a state court) to decide in a definite way the case before them.”). See also Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74-77 (2006) (§ 2254 refers to holdings, rather than dicta, of the Supreme Court, collecting circuit cases “[r]eflecting the lack of guidance from this Court, ” on the issue).

         The “contrary to” and “unreasonable application” clauses of § 2254(d)(1) have independent meanings. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-06 (2000); Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 362). “Under the ‘contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ 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 this Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Under the ‘unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from this Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 412-13. “Avoiding these pitfalls [described in Williams v. Taylor ] does not require citation of our cases-indeed, it does not even require awareness of our cases, so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts them.” Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002) (emphasis in original). Further, “whether a state court's decision was unreasonable must be assessed in light of the record the court had before it.” Holland v. Jackson, 542 U.S. 649, 652 (2004). In Gill, the Eleventh Circuit clarified how the federal habeas court should address the “unreasonable application of law” and the “unreasonable determination of facts” tests. The court acknowledged the well-settled principle that summary affirmances, such as the Florida First District Court of Appeal's in this case, are presumed adjudicated on the merits and warrant deference. 633 F.3d at 1288 (citing Harrington v. Richter, 526 U.S. 86 (2011), and Wright v. Sec'y for the Dep't of Corr., 278 F.3d 1245, 1254 (11th Cir. 2002)). “A judicial decision and a judicial opinion are not the same thing, ” and the Supreme Court has confirmed that determining whether the state court unreasonably applied the law or unreasonably determined the facts requires only a decision, not an opinion. Id. at 1291 (citing Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 784). Yet, the Supreme Court has never squarely addressed whether under the “unreasonable application” test a federal habeas court “looks exclusively to the objective reasonableness of the state court's ultimate conclusion or must also consider the method by which the state court arrives at its conclusion.” Id. at 1289 (quoting Neal v. Puckett, 286 F.3d 230, 244-45 (5th Cir. 2002) (summarizing the emerging circuit split)). The Eleventh Circuit concluded that district courts must apply the plain language of § 2254(d) and answer the “precise question” raised in a claim based on the state court's ultimate legal conclusion, and should not “evaluate or rely upon the correctness of the state court's process of reasoning.” Id. at 1291. In short, the court stated, “the statutory language focuses on the result, not on the reasoning that led to the result.” Id.

         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. Id. 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 decision was objectively unreasonable. Gill, 133 F.3d at 1290.

         To prevail on a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must demonstrate (1) that his counsel's performance was below an objective and reasonable professional norm, and (2) that he was prejudiced by this inadequacy. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). The court may dispose of the claim if a ...

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