Hamilton #218928 v. Palmer
OPINION AND ORDER ; signed by Judge R. Allan Edgar (Judge R. Allan Edgar, cam)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
Case No. 1:12-CV-00806
HON. R. ALLAN EDGAR
OPINION AND ORDER
Petitioner filed this § 2254 petition for writ of habeas corpus challenging the
validity of his State court conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel and an incorrect
application of the sentencing guidelines to his case. Petitioner pleaded guilty and was convicted
of second degree murder (M.C.L. § 750.317), and was sentenced to forty-two to eighty years
imprisonment on March 15, 2010. Respondent has filed a Motion to Dismiss Petitioner’s claim,
and Petitioner has responded. The case is now ready for decision.
Petitioner admittedly stabbed and killed a man, ultimately leading to his second
degree murder conviction in 2010. Petitioner pleaded guilty to the charge after the Prosecutor
placed the plea agreement on the record two separate times. The plea agreement dismissed the
habitual-offender enhancement and six separate charges. At the plea hearing, the trial Judge
informed Petitioner that the maximum possible sentence for second degree murder was life or
any term of years. Petitioner confirmed his understanding of this information, and further stated
that his attorney had informed Petitioner of his rights, the plea agreement, and the maximum
possible sentence. The trial court sentenced Petitioner to a minimum of 504 months (forty-two
Six months after being sentenced, Petitioner motioned to withdraw his guilty plea
on the same grounds raised before this Court. The trial court declined his motion on November
Petitioner maintains that his conviction was obtained in violation of his federal
rights. This petition sets forth two claims for relief: (1) to withdraw Petitioner’s guilty plea due
to ineffective assistance of counsel, and (2) to be re-sentenced due to an incorrect application of
the sentencing guidelines. Respondent has filed a motion to dismiss Petitioner’s application for
habeas corpus relief (Docket # 10), and Petitioner has filed a response to the motion (Docket #
25). The matter is now ready for decision.
Petitioner filed this petition after the effective date of the Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. PUB. L. 104-132, 110 STAT. 1214 (AEDPA); Bell v. Cone,
535 U.S. 685, 693-94 (2002) (noting that AEDPA prevents federal habeas “retrials” and ensures
state convictions are made under state law). 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) provides that any habeas
application by a person in state custody shall not be granted in regards to any claim that has
previously been adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the 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.
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)-(2).
This Court may only consider “clearly established holdings” of the Supreme
Court, not lower federal courts, in analyzing a petitioner’s claim under § 2254. Williams v.
Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Bailey v. Mitchell, 271 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir. 2001). A
decision of the state court may only be overturned if: (1) it applies a rule contradicting Supreme
Court governing law, (2) it contradicts a set of facts materially indistinguishable from a Supreme
Court decision, (3) it unreasonably applies correct Supreme Court precedent to the facts of the
case, (4) it unreasonably extends Supreme Court legal principles where it should not apply, or (5)
it unreasonably refuses to extend Supreme Court legal principle where it should apply. Bailey,
271 F.3d at 655; see also Lancaster v. Adams, 324 F.3d 423, 429 (6th Cir. 2003).
A federal habeas court may not find a state adjudication to be “unreasonable”
simply because that court decides, in its own judgment, that the relevant state decision applied
federal law incorrectly. Williams, 529 U.S. at 410-11 (noting that it must instead determine if the
state court’s application of clearly established federal law was “objectively unreasonable”). This
Court defers to state court decisions when the state court addressed the merits of petitioner’s
claim. Harris v. Stovall, 212 F.3d 940, 943 (6th Cir. 2000); see Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510,
534 (2003) (allowing review of habeas application de novo when state court clearly did not reach
the question). When applying AEDPA to state factual findings, factual issues by state courts are
presumed correct unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption with clear and convincing
evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Lancaster, 324 F.3d at 429.
After applying the standards under AEDPA to Petitioner’s case, this Court
concludes that Petitioner has not provided clear and convincing evidence that the state court
improperly applied clearly established federal law to the facts of Petitioner’s case.
Petitioner argues that this Court should grant him relief because: (1) his trial
counsel was ineffective for wrongly predicting Petitioner’s actual sentence, and (2) his sentence
score was incorrect. This Court reviews both of these claims individually.
A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Petitioner argues that he should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea because
trial counsel told him that he would be sentenced to fifteen to twenty years, rather than forty-two
to eighty. Because Petitioner claims he pleaded guilty based on the incorrect advice of defense
counsel, Petitioner may only challenge the voluntary and intelligent nature of his plea by showing
that his counsel was ineffective. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56-57 (1985).
To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a convicted defendant
must demonstrate (1) that counsel’s errors were so serious that counsel was not functioning as
counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and (2) that there is a reasonable probability that,
but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688-96 (1984) (noting that defendant must prove both
prongs, deficient performance and prejudice, to prevail). In reviewing an ineffective assistance
of counsel claim, courts must strongly presume that counsel’s conduct “falls within the wide
range of reasonable professional assistance.” West v. Seabold, 73 F.3d 81, 84 (6th Cir. 1996)
(quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). The main issue then is simply whether petitioner’s
counsel was “so thoroughly ineffective that defeat was ‘snatched from the jaws of victory.’” Id.
(quoting United States v. Morrow, 977 F.2d 222, 229 (6th Cir. 1992) (en banc), cert. denied, 113
S. Ct. 2969 (1993)). In the plea bargain context, Petitioner must show that but for his trial
counsel’s errors, Petitioner would have gone to trial. Hill, 474 U.S. at 56-60.
Under the first prong of Strickland, Petitioner has failed to prove that his defense
counsel performed deficiently. Petitioner alleges that his defense counsel told him, in private,
that Petitioner would receive a sentence ranging from fifteen to twenty years upon a plea of guilty
to second degree murder. However, Petitioner has not corroborated this allegation with anything
but his own self-serving affidavit and statements. Even if Petitioner had provided sufficient
evidence to corroborate his claim, this Court still finds that Petitioner’s counsel did not perform
deficiently. Mere inaccurate predictions of a potential sentence are generally not indicators of
deficient performance. See, e.g., Stout v. United States, 508 F.2d 951, 953 (6th Cir. 1975) (“A
plea is not rendered involuntary merely because a prediction that a guilty plea will result in a
light sentence does not come true.”). Moreover, during Petitioner’s plea colloquy, Petitioner was
asked if anyone made any promises or assurances causing him to enter a guilty plea, to which
Petitioner responded negatively. Consequently, Petitioner’s counsel did not perform deficiently
by allegedly making an inaccurate prediction regarding Petitioner’s possible sentence.
Even if Petitioner’s defense attorney had performed deficiently, this Court
concludes that Petitioner was not prejudiced by his trial attorney’s performance. Petitioner has
not shown that but for his defense attorney’s advice, Petitioner would have chosen to go to trial
rather than plead guilty to second degree murder. Instead, Petitioner argues that he only pleaded
guilty because he thought he would be given a lesser sentence. However, Petitioner makes this
claim despite having gone through an extensive plea colloquy and reiteration of the potential
sentence at Petitioner’s plea hearing. As the state court correctly noted, if Petitioner had
objections or was confused about the potential sentence for second degree murder, he had ample
opportunity to make his concerns known. Since Petitioner has not proven that he would have
gone to trial but for his attorney’s deficient performance, Petitioner has not met his burden and
his request to withdraw his plea is denied.
The trial court’s reasoning in denying Petitioner’s claim of ineffective assistance
of counsel is analogous to the reasoning set forth by this Court:
The record is very clear the plea agreement on the record contains no
such promise; and there are 2 or 3 occasions when the defendant certainly
could’ve let us know that that was the circumstance. The record is also very
clear that the defendant was under oath at the time he gave those responses
about there being no other promises made to him. He acknowledged hearing
and understanding the plea agreement; specifically, I asked him not only did
he hear the representation as—as to what the plea agreement was, but
whether he further understood that representation, and—and then there was
a third question, of course, as to whether anybody had promised him to [sic]
tricked him or forced him in any way, and, under oath, he said, no, that there
were no other promises made to him. And, as [Berrien County Assistant
Prosecuting Attorney Patricia] Ceresa, points out, that would’ve been the
time for him to bring that to our attention. That frequently happens if there
is a representation, even a mistaken representation, or a representation by
Defense counsel to a client that they believe the sentencing guidelines range
will be here, defendants frequence [sic]—will—will be in a certain range.
Defendants will frequently speak up in response to those questions and ask
the Court, well, you know, they told me that the sentencing guidelines are
gonna be this, or my mid—minimum sentence would be this. No such
question was asked here. When those questions come up, of course, we go
back over that issue and explain to the defendant and then—and sure that the
Prosecutor and the Defense attorney have correctly stated the plea agreement
and that no such promises were made with respect to sentencing. The
defendant did not speak up. He did acknowledge, as I said, that no other
promises were made to him. He also acknowledged under oath that the—that
his plea was in fact voluntary. He said it was his own choice. I asked him
that specific question, in addition to whether anybody had forced him or
tricked him or promised him anything. . . .
I understand that your claim, Mr. Foster, is that this promise made by
the Defense attorney in—ultimately can affect the—the volitional act of the
defendant, whether or not he truly understood what he was doing, whether
it’s voluntary if he thinks something else is gonna happen. Also, your
suggestion that the plea would be involuntary—it could be involuntary if he
got bad advice, if there was ineffective assistance of counsel. I don’t see that
this rises to that level. In fact, the only evidence that there is that such [sic]
a statement or a promise was made is Mr. Hamilton’s own self-serving
affidavit. There’s nothing from Mr. Miller to corroborate it, and, his affidavit
now, late in the game, after he’s been sentenced, is a bit suspect given what
he said under oath in the courtroom. That was an extensive plea proceeding
I—and—and a thorough plea proceeding from a review of the record.
So . . . I’m finding that there is not sufficient evidence here of anything
that was involuntary or illusory in this plea agreement such as to render the
plea invalid and to permit him to withdraw it.
Answer in Opp’n to Pet. at 23-24 (Apr. 23, 2013) (citing Nov. 23, 2010 Mot. Tr. at 11-13).
The State court’s review of this claim is thorough and complete. Petitioner has
not met the first prong under Strickland—that his trial counsel performed deficiently for
allegedly making an inaccurate prediction of Petitioner’s potential sentence. Stout, 508 F.2d at
953 (“A plea is not rendered involuntary merely because a prediction that a guilty plea will result
in a light sentence does not come true.”). Because Petitioner has not put forth new facts that
would change this outcome, Petitioner has failed to show that his trial counsel was ineffective.
Therefore, Petitioner’s request to withdraw his plea based on ineffective assistance of counsel is
B. Incorrect Application of the Sentencing Guidelines to Petitioner’s case.
Petitioner claims his sentencing score was incorrect and that he should be resentenced as a result. However, even if this Court were to read the merits of Petitioner’s
argument, an improper sentence scoring claim is a state law claim, which is typically not
cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings. See Hutto v. Davis, 454 U.S. 370, 373-74 (1982)
(noting federal courts normally do not review a sentence for a term of years that falls within the
limits prescribed by the state legislature); Austin v. Jackson, 213 F.3d 298, 301-02 (6th Cir.
2000) (stating alleged violation of state law with respect to sentencing is not subject to federal
habeas relief). There is no constitutional right to individualized sentencing. Harmelin v.
Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 995 (1991); United States v. Thomas, 49 F.3d 253, 261 (6th Cir. 1995).
Moreover, a criminal defendant has “no federal constitutional right to be sentenced within
Michigan’s guideline minimum sentence recommendations.” Doyle v. Scutt, 347 F. Supp. 2d
474, 485 (E.D. Mich. 2004); Lovely v. Jackson, 337 F. Supp. 2d 969, 977 (E.D. Mich. 2004).
Although state law errors generally are not reviewable in a federal habeas
proceeding, an alleged violation of state law “could, potentially, ‘be sufficiently egregious to
amount to a denial of equal protection or of due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth
Amendment.’” Koras v. Robinson, 123 F. App’x 207, 213 (6th Cir. Feb. 15, 2005) (citing
Bowling v. Parker, 344 F.3d 487, 521 (6th Cir. 2003)); see also Doyle, 347 F. Supp. 2d at 485
(noting a habeas court “will not set aside, on allegations of unfairness or an abuse of discretion,
terms of a sentence that is within state statutory limits unless the sentence is so disproportionate
to the crime as to be completely arbitrary and shocking.”) (citation omitted). A sentence may
violate due process if it is based upon material “misinformation of constitutional magnitude.”
Koras, 123 F. App’x at 213 (quoting Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 556 (1980)); see
also United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443, 447 (1972). To prevail on such a claim, the
petitioner must show that the information before the sentencing court was materially false, and
that the court relied on the false information in imposing the sentence. Tucker, 404 U.S. at
447;United States v. Polselli, 747 F.2d 356, 358 (6th Cir. 1984). A sentencing court
demonstrates actual reliance on misinformation when the court gives “explicit attention” to it,
“found[s]” its sentence “at least in part” on it, or gives “specific consideration” to the information
before imposing sentence. Tucker, 404 U.S. at 444, 447.
Petitioner’s sentence is clearly not so disproportionate to the crime as to be
arbitrary or shocking. Doyle, 347 F. Supp. 2d at 485. Petitioner pleaded guilty and was
convicted of second degree murder for having stabbed a man in the chest, resulting in the
victim’s death. At his plea hearing, Petitioner stated on the record that he understood the
possible sentence range for this crime to be “imprisonment in the state prison for life, or any term
of years, in the discretion of the court trying the same.” MICH. COMP. LAWS § 750.317. Based
on this knowledge and Petitioner’s own acknowledgment of it, the trial Judge sentenced
Petitioner to forty-two to eighty years imprisonment. Given the violent nature of the crime and
Petitioner’s understanding of the possible sentence during the plea colloquy, Petitioner’s
sentence of forty-two to eighty years imprisonment is not so disproportionate to the crime that it
is arbitrary or shocking. See Doyle,347 F. Supp. 2d at 485; see, e.g., Friday v. Pitcher, 200 F.
Supp. 2d 725, 743-44 (E.D. Mich. 2002), aff’d, 99 F. App’x 568 (6th Cir. 2004) (noting sentence
of twenty-five to sixty-five years); Dillard v. Prelesnik, 156 F. Supp. 2d 798, 800 (E.D. Mich.
2001) (noting sentence of twenty-five to forty years).
Further, Petitioner does not argue that the facts found and used by the court in
determining his sentence were either materially false or that the court based its sentence on false
information. Tucker, 404 U.S. at 447. While Petitioner initially objected to use of a past
conviction to score one of his prior record variables (PRV) during his sentencing hearing,
Petitioner never indicated that this conviction was false. Instead, Petitioner, withdrew his
objection when he agreed that regardless of whether the past conviction in question was included
in his PRV score, his possible sentence would not be affected. Simply because Petitioner now
believes that the court’s reliance on Petitioner’s then agreed upon sentence score was erroneous
does not qualify this claim as being so egregious as to implicate due process. Consequently, this
Court denies Petitioner’s request for re-sentencing.
This Court concludes that both of Petitioner’s claims are without merit. Should
Petitioner choose to appeal this action, the Court must determine whether a certificate of
appealability may be granted. A certificate should issue if Petitioner has demonstrated a
“substantial showing of a denial of a constitutional right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). The Sixth
Circuit Court of Appeals has disapproved issuance of blanket denials of a certificate of
appealability. Murphy v. Ohio, 263 F.3d 466 (6th Cir. 2001). Each issue must be considered
under the standards set forth in Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473 (2000). Under Slack, to warrant
a grant of the certificate, “[t]he petitioner must demonstrate that reasonable jurists would find the
district court’s assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or wrong.” Slack, 529 U.S. at
484. The Court examined each of Petitioner’s claims under the Slack standard and concludes
that reasonable jurists could not find that a dismissal of each of Petitioner’s claims was debatable
or wrong. Therefore, the Court denies a certificate of appealability as to each issue raised.
For the same reasons the Court dismissed this action, the Court will certify that
any appeal by Petitioner from the Court’s decision and judgment would be frivolous and not
taken in good faith, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) and Fed. R. App. P. 24. Therefore, any
application by Petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal is hereby denied.
In summary, Petitioner’s motion for post-conviction relief (Docket # 1) pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is DENIED and DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. A judgment
consistent with this Opinion and Order will be entered.
/s/ R. Allan Edgar
R. ALLAN EDGAR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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