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Ellis v. Little

United States District Court, D. Idaho

December 11, 2018

STEVEN LITTLE, Warden, Southern Idaho Correctional Institution, Respondent.


          B. Lynn Winmill Chief U.S. District Court Judge

         Pending before the Court is an Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Idaho state prisoner Jerry Leonard Ellis (“Petitioner” or “Ellis”), challenging Petitioner's convictions of felony driving under the influence (“DUI”). (Dkt. 54.) The Court previously dismissed, as procedurally defaulted, Claims 1, 2, and 6 through 22 of the Amended Petition. (Dkt. 53.) The merits of the remaining claims-Claims 3, 4, and 5-are now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.[1] (Dkt. 61, 62, 64.) The Court takes judicial notice of the records from Petitioner's state court proceedings, which have been lodged by Respondent. (Dkt. 16, 30.) See Fed. R. Evid. 201(b); Dawson v. Mahoney, 451 F.3d 550, 551 n.1 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Having carefully reviewed the record in this matter, including the state court record, the Court concludes that oral argument is unnecessary. See D. Idaho L. Civ. R. 7.1(d). Accordingly, the Court enters the following Order denying habeas corpus relief on Petitioner's remaining claims.


         Petitioner pleaded guilty in two felony DUI cases. He was given suspended sentences of incarceration and placed on probation. Petitioner had multiple opportunities to help him succeed on probation-for example, Petitioner was granted a place in the mental health court program-but he did not.

         Instead, Petitioner consistently failed to comply with the terms of his probation. However, he was given numerous chances to avoid prison. This Court has previously recounted Petitioner's “ongoing cycle of probation, violation, and retained jurisdiction” and will not do so again here. (Dkt. 53 at 3.) It suffices to state that, in 2013, Petitioner was-yet again-charged with violating his probation in both of his felony DUI cases.

         At the beginning of the admit/deny hearing on the probation violation charges, as later explained by the Idaho Court of Appeals, Petitioner requested a continuance “to obtain an updated mental health evaluation”:

Ellis claimed he was not feeling well on his medication that particular day and, specifically, that he was feeling extremely overwhelmed. The district court explained that Ellis was receiving his medication in jail and that neither the district court, the state, nor those responsible for Ellis's regular treatment was aware of any complaint, prior to the hearing, that Ellis was not feeling stable on his medication. The district court further explained that there was a difference between not feeling well and being incompetent and that it found no evidence that there was a lack of competency or an inability to assist counsel. Explaining that it had reviewed Ellis's file and believed that there was a pattern of delay every time there was a prospect of prison, the district court did not find Ellis's complaint credible and, therefore, denied Ellis's motion for continuance.

(State's Lodging B-5 at 2.)

         Petitioner then requested a continuance on a different basis-to retain private counsel. The court denied the request, “again explaining that it believed Ellis's request was a delay tactic.” (State's Lodging B-5 at 2.)

         Petitioner admitted one of the violations-that he had driven without privileges- and denied another-that he had been terminated from the mental health court program for noncompliance.[2] (See State's Lodging A-2 at 503-04; A-7.) After an evidentiary hearing, the state district court found the noncompliance allegation proven. (State's Lodging A-7 at 8-15.) The court then stated that it would proceed immediately to the revocation/disposition stage of the proceedings. (Id. at 15.) Petitioner asked that the court “continue the disposition portion of the hearing because his witnesses were not at the hearing to testify on his behalf.” (State's Lodging B-2 at 5.) Petitioner's attorney said that the reason the witnesses were not at the hearing was the attorney's belief that “this was simply the admit/deny hearing on it.” (State's Lodging A-7 at 16.)

         Petitioner made an offer of proof as to the testimony that Petitioner's witnesses would give. The court accepted that offer as true and denied the motion to continue. (Id. at 16-18.) After allowing Petitioner to make a statement, the court revoked probation and ordered execution of the underlying sentences. (State's Lodging B-5 at 2.)

         On appeal, the Idaho Court of Appeals held that the district court did not violate Petitioner's right to counsel of choice. (State's Lodging B-5 at 2-4.) This counsel-of-choice claim is presented as Claim 3 of the Amended Petition.

         With respect to Petitioner's claim that the district court's failure to notify Petitioner that the hearing would include disposition, which corresponds to Claim 4 of the Amended Petition, the court of appeals assumed error, but found that error harmless. (Id. at 4-6.)

         Although the state court did not separately address Petitioner's claim that the trial court should have continued the disposition hearing so Petitioner could present witnesses-presented here as Claim 5-that claim is inextricably intertwined with Claim 4. Therefore, the Court presumes that the Idaho Court of Appeals adjudicated Claim 5 on the merits and rejected it for the same reasons as Claim 4-that the failure to grant the continuance was harmless. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99 (2011) (“When a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.”).

         The Idaho Supreme Court denied review of Petitioner's appeal. (State's Lodging B-8.)

         Because the Idaho Court of Appeals adjudicated the merits of Claims 3, 4, and 5, this Court may not, and therefore does not, consider the additional documents submitted by Petitioner-which were not presented to the state court-in its merits review of those claims.[3] See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 180 (2011).


         Federal habeas corpus relief may be granted on claims adjudicated on the merits in a state court judgment when the federal court determines that the petitioner “is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Under § 2254(d), as amended by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), federal habeas relief is further limited to instances where the state court's adjudication of the petitioner's claim

(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). “Deciding whether a state court's decision involved an unreasonable application of federal law or was based on an unreasonable determination of fact requires the federal habeas court to train its attention on the particular reasons- both legal and factual-why state courts rejected a state prisoner's federal claims and to give appropriate deference to that decision.” Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1191-92 (2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         When a party contests the state court's legal conclusions, including application of the law to the facts, § 2254(d)(1) governs. That section consists of two alternative tests: the “contrary to” test and the “unreasonable application” test.

         Under the first test, a state court's decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law “if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases, or if it decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] [has] done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). Under the second test, to satisfy the “unreasonable application” clause of § 2254(d)(1) the petitioner must show that the state court-although identifying “the correct governing legal rule” from Supreme Court precedent-nonetheless “unreasonably applie[d] it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case.” Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 407 (2000). “Section 2254(d)(1) provides a remedy for instances in which a state court unreasonably applies [Supreme Court] precedent; it does not require state courts to extend that precedent or license federal courts to treat the failure to do so as error.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1706 (2014) (emphasis omitted).

         A federal court cannot grant habeas relief simply because it concludes in its independent judgment that the decision is incorrect or wrong; rather, the state court's application of federal law must be objectively unreasonable to warrant relief. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003); Bell, 535 U.S. at 694. If there is any possibility that fair-minded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision, then relief is not warranted under § 2254(d)(1). Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. The Supreme Court has emphasized that “even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. To be entitled to habeas relief under § 2254(d)(1), “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.” Id. at 103.

         Though the source of clearly-established federal law must come only from the holdings of the United States Supreme Court, circuit precedent may be persuasive authority for determining whether a state court decision is an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent. Duhaime v. Ducharme, 200 F.3d 597, 600-01 (9th Cir. 2000). However, circuit law may not be used “to refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that th[e] Court has not announced.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. 58, 64 (2013).

         “[R]eview under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Pinholster, 563 U.S. at 180. This means that evidence not presented to the state court may not be introduced on federal habeas review if a claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court and if the underlying factual determinations of the state court were reasonable. See Murray v. Schriro, 745 F.3d 984, 999-1000 (9th Cir. 2014); (“After Pinholster, a federal habeas court may consider new evidence only on de novo review, subject to the limitations of § 2254(e)(2).”); Hurles v. Ryan, 752 F.3d 768, 778 (9th Cir. 2014) (“If we determine, considering only the evidence before the state court, that the adjudication of a claim on the merits ... was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, we evaluate the claim de novo, and we may consider evidence properly presented for the first time in federal court.”).

         To be eligible for relief under § 2254(d)(2), the petitioner must show that the state court decision was based upon factual determinations that were “unreasonable ... in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” A “state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.” Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010); see also Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007) (“The question under AEDPA is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.”). State court factual findings are presumed correct and are binding on the federal court unless the petitioner rebuts that presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         If a petitioner satisfies § 2254(d)-either by showing that the state court's adjudication of a claim was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court law or by establishing that the state court's factual findings were unreasonable- then the federal court must review the petitioner's claim de novo. Hurles, 752 F.3d at 778. De novo review is also required where the state appellate court did not decide a properly-asserted claim or where an adequate excuse for the procedural default of a claim exists. Pirtle v. Morgan, 313 F.3d 1160, 1167 (9th Cir. 2002); Dickens v. Ryan, 740 F.3d 1302, 1321 (9th Cir. 2014) (en banc).

         Generally, even if a habeas petitioner succeeds in demonstrating a constitutional error in his conviction, he is entitled to relief only if he can also show that he was prejudiced by that error. Most constitutional errors are subject to some type of harmless-error analysis. On direct appeal, a constitutional error can be considered harmless only if the prosecution proves that it was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, ” as explained in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24 (1967); see also Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2197 (2015) (“[I]n the absence of the rare type of error that requires automatic reversal, relief is appropriate only if the prosecution cannot demonstrate harmlessness.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The test for harmless error on federal habeas review, however, is different from- and stricter than-the Chapman standard. Petitioners generally are not “entitled to habeas relief based on trial error unless they can establish that [the error] resulted in ‘actual prejudice.'” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993). Under the Brecht standard, an error is not harmless, and habeas relief must be granted, only if the federal court has “grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining” the outcome of the proceeding. O'Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). A “reasonable possibility” of prejudice is insufficient. Brecht, 507 U.S. at 637. In addition, the petitioner, rather than the State, has the burden of showing prejudice.

         AEDPA's deferential standard-restricting habeas relief to cases where the state court's decision was objectively unreasonable-applies to a state court's harmlessness determination. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. at 2198-99. Thus, in addition to the Brecht standard, a federal court on habeas review considers whether fairminded jurists could debate whether the state court's Chapman analysis was reasonable. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 101. The Brecht analysis “subsumes” the AEDPA standard, Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 120 (2007), and although a federal court “need not formally apply both Brecht and AEDPA/Chapman, ” section 2254(d) “nevertheless sets forth a precondition to the grant of habeas relief.” Ayala, 135 S.Ct. at 2198 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted).


         For the reasons that follow, Petitioner is not entitled to habeas ...

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