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Abonza-Torres v. Secretary, Department of Corrections

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

August 15, 2019



          William F. Jung United States District Judge.

         Moises Abonza-Torres, a Florida prisoner, timely filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1) challenging his Hillsborough County convictions. The Court ordered Respondent Secretary, Department of Corrections, to show cause why the relief sought in the petition should not be granted. (Dkt. 4). Respondent filed a response, along with the state court record. (Dkts. 5, 7). The Court then granted Mr. Abonza-Torres's motion to supplement his petition with an additional claim (Dkts. 10, 11), and Respondent filed a supplemental response. (Dkt. 12). Mr. Abonza-Torres filed a reply. (Dkt. 16). After review, the petition will be denied.


         Mr. Abonza-Torres entered an open plea of no contest to two counts of robbery with a firearm, two counts of armed burglary of a dwelling, and two counts of armed false imprisonment. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 1, pp. 68, 116). He was sentenced to an overall term of 40 years in prison, followed by 10 years on probation. (Id., pp. 85-90, 127-31). The state appellate court per curiam affirmed the convictions and sentences. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 6). Mr. Abonza-Torres filed a motion for postconviction relief under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 8, pp. 116-24). The state court summarily denied the motion in part, and denied the remaining claims after an evidentiary hearing. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 8, pp. 162-70; Ex. 10, pp. 484-98). The state appellate court per curiam affirmed the denial of relief. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 14).

         Standards of Review

         I. AEDPA

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") governs this proceeding. Carroll v. Sec'y, DOC, 574 F.3d 1354, 1364 (11th Cir. 2009). Habeas relief can only be granted if a petitioner is in custody "in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Section 2254(d) provides that federal habeas relief cannot be granted on a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court's adjudication:

(1) 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; or
(2) 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.

         A decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law "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." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000). A decision is an "unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law "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.

         AEDPA was meant "to prevent federal habeas 'retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002). Accordingly, "[t]he focus ... is on whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law is objectively unreasonable, and... an unreasonable application is different from an incorrect one." Id. at 694. See also Harrington v. Richer, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011) ("As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, 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.").

         The state appellate court affirmed the denial of postconviction relief without discussion. This decision warrants deference under § 2254(d)(1) because "the summary nature of a state court's decision does not lessen the deference that it is due." Wright v. Moore, 278 F.3d 1245, 1254 (11th Cir. 2002). When a state appellate court issues a silent affirmance, "the federal court should 'look through' the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale" and "presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning." Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018).

         II. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are analyzed under the test established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Strickland requires a showing of deficient performance by counsel and resulting prejudice. Id. at 687. To show deficient performance, a petitioner must demonstrate that "counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 687-88. A court must consider whether, "in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions [of counsel] were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Id. at 690. However, "counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Id. Furthermore, "counsel 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." Wofford v. Wainwright, 748 F.2d 1505, 1508 (11th Cir. 1984).

         Mr. Abonza-Torres must demonstrate that counsel's alleged error prejudiced the defense because "[a]n error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691. To establish prejudice, a petitioner who pleaded guilty "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).

         Obtaining relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is difficult on federal habeas review because "[t]he standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both 'highly deferential,' and when the two apply in tandem, review is 'doubly' so." Richter, 562 U.S. at 105 (citations omitted). See also Burt v. Tit low, 571 U.S. 12, 15 (2013) (this doubly deferential standard of review "gives both the state court and the defense attorney the benefit of the doubt.").


         I. Mr. Abonza-Torres 's Plea

         Mr. Abonza-Torres's no contest plea is subject to the same analysis as a guilty plea. See Wallace v. Turner, 695 F.2d 545, 548 (11th Cir. 1983) ("The fundamental constitutional consideration when a petitioner challenges his plea is whether it was voluntary. The rule is the same for pleas of guilty or nolo contendere."). Since a guilty plea waives non-jurisdictional defects, a petitioner who enters a plea can only challenge the knowing and voluntary nature of the plea. Entry of a plea, therefore, precludes most challenges to the conviction. See Tollett v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258, 267 (1973) (holding that, after a criminal defendant enters a guilty plea, he "may not thereafter raise independent claims relating to the deprivation of constitutional rights that occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea. He may only attack the voluntary and intelligent character of the guilty plea by showing that the advice he received from counsel was not within" the range of competence for criminal attorneys); see also United States v. Broce, 488 U.S. 563, 569 (1989) ("[W]hen the judgment of conviction upon a guilty plea has become final and the offender seeks to reopen the proceeding, the inquiry is ordinarily confined to whether the underlying plea was both counseled and voluntary."); Wilson v. United States, 962 F.2d 996, 997 (11th Cir. 1992) ("A defendant who enters a plea of guilty waives all nonjurisdictional challenges to the constitutionality of the conviction, and only an attack on the voluntary and knowing nature of the plea can be sustained.").

         The standard for determining the validity of a guilty plea is "whether the plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant." North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 31 (1970). "A reviewing federal court may set aside a state court guilty plea only for failure to satisfy due process: 'If a defendant understands the charges against him, understands the consequences of a guilty plea, and voluntarily chooses to plead guilty, without being coerced to do so, the guilty plea . . . will be upheld on federal review.'" Stano v. Dugger, 921 F.2d 1125, 1141 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting Frank v. Blackburn, 646 F.2d 873, 882 (5th Cir. 1980)).

         In evaluating the voluntariness of a guilty plea, "the representations of the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor at [a plea] hearing, as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977). A reviewing court applies a "strong presumption" that statements made by a defendant during his plea colloquy are true. United States v. Medlock, 12 F.3d 185, 187 (11th Cir. 1994). Accordingly, "when a defendant makes statements under oath at a plea colloquy, he bears a heavy burden to show his statements were false." United States v. Rogers, 848 F.2d 166, 168 (11th Cir. 1988).

         The record demonstrates that Mr. Abonza-Torres's plea was voluntary. The change of plea hearing transcript shows that he understood what rights he gave up by pleading. Specifically, Mr. Abonza-Torres said he understood that he waived his right to a jury trial, to present evidence in his defense, to confront the State's witnesses and evidence against him, and to remain silent. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 1, pp. 138-39). Mr. Abonza-Torres understood that he was pleading open and there was no agreement as to what sentence he would receive. (Id., p. 139). He also stipulated to the prosecution's factual bases for the charges. (Id., pp. 140-42). Mr. Abonza-Torres stated that he had sufficient time to talk to his attorney about his decision to plead, and that his attorney reviewed the change of plea forms with him. (Id., p. 139). Mr. Abonza-Torres told the court that he signed and understood the change of plea forms. (Id.). Those forms set out the charges Mr. Abonza-Torres faced and the maximum sentence that could be imposed. (Id., pp. 68, 116). Accordingly, Mr. Abonza-Torres's plea "represented] a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to" him. See Alford, 400 U.S. at 31.

         II. Ground One

         Mr. Abonza-Torres argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. As addressed above, Mr. Abonza-Torres's voluntary plea waives any claims involving non-jurisdictional defects that occurred prior to entry of the plea. The question of whether the evidence should have been suppressed is non-jurisdictional. See United States v. Marshall, 453 Fed.Appx. 911, 913 (11th Cir. 2011) ("A claim that the government illegally obtained evidence is nonjurisdictional.") (citation omitted); United States v. Hickman, 202 Fed.Appx. 419, 420 (11th Cir. 2006) ("A [trial] court's refusal to suppress evidence is non-jurisdictional and is waived by a guilty plea."). Accordingly, Mr. Abonza-Torres's voluntary plea waives any challenge the denial of his motion to suppress. Mr. Abonza-Torres cannot obtain federal habeas relief on Ground One.

         III. Ground Two

         The State and Mr. Abonza-Torres engaged in plea negotiations. The State initially offered "to not seek more than 20 years" if Mr. Abonza-Torres abandoned his motion to suppress and entered an open plea. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 2, p. 172). Mr. Abonza-Torres rejected this offer. (Id., pp. 173-74). According to counsel, after the motion to suppress was denied, the State presented a written offer of 25 years if Mr. Abonza-Torres waived his right to appeal the denial of the motion. (Dkt. 7, Ex. 10, p. 469). Mr. Abonza-Torres rejected this offer as well. (Id., p. 470).

         Mr. Abonza-Torres claims that trial counsel was ineffective for misadvising him that if he entered an open plea, he would receive a sentence of less than 20 years, consistent with the State's original offer. Mr. Abonza-Torres claims that this misadvice caused his plea to be involuntary. The state court denied this claim after an evidentiary hearing:

In claim one, Defendant alleges ineffective assistance of counsel when counsel advised Defendant that if he pled no contest in open court, he would receive less than the twenty years' prison the State offered during negotiations, thereby rendering his plea involuntary. Specifically, Defendant alleges his counsel ['s] misadvice and promises ...

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