United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR BOND PENDING REVIEW OF PETITIONER'S HABEAS PETITION (ECF #26) INTRODUCTION
MATTHEW F. LEITMAN, District Judge.
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that federal habeas relief functions only as a "guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011). Petitioner Stephen Blocksom ("Blocksom") has made a substantial preliminary showing here - through supporting affidavits and transcript excerpts - that he may have been the victim of just such an "extreme malfunction."
Blocksom entered into a very favorable plea agreement - so favorable that, at sentencing, a state court judge declined to impose the sentence that Blocksom had agreed to serve. Instead, the judge gave Blocksom two options: (1) persist in his plea and serve a slightly longer sentence or (2) withdraw the plea and go to trial. The judge then made statements that Blocksom reasonably could have interpreted to mean that if he withdrew the plea and went to trial, his maximum exposure following a conviction would be one year in custody. Blocksom's appointed defense attorney also apparently told Blocksom that his maximum exposure would be one year in custody if he withdrew his plea and proceeded to trial. Blocksom says that in reliance on the statements by the judge and his lawyer, he withdrew his plea and proceeded to trial.
In reality, Blocksom's maximum exposure upon withdrawing his plea was not one year in custody. Rather, Blocksom's exposure once he withdrew his plea was life in prison. Blocksom was convicted at trial and ultimately sentenced to 9-20 years in state prison - a term that is between 9 and 20 times greater than the maximum exposure he was apparently told that he would face if convicted at trial.
Blocksom appealed, and his appointed appellate lawyer filed Blocksom's appeal before ordering, and before ever reviewing, the district court transcripts - which, of course, would have revealed the state court judge's statements about Blocksom's maximum sentencing exposure. And Blocksom's appellate counsel did not argue on appeal that Blocksom's trial counsel was ineffective for providing inaccurate advice regarding Blocksom's maximum potential sentence.
If proven, all of this would appear to amount to the very type of "extreme malfunction" that would entitle Blocksom federal habeas relief.
Respondent counters that Blocksom's entitlement to relief depends, in part, on Blocksom's credibility - on whether a court believes that Blocksom, in fact, relied upon the advice of his attorney and the statements by the state court judge - and Respondent rightly points out that he has not yet had an opportunity to cross-examine Blocksom on the reliance issue. Respondent further insists that Blocksom could not have reasonably relied on the statements at issue by the state court judge. Respondent likewise raises a number of procedural objections to Blocksom's claim for relief. All of Respondent's arguments warrant serious consideration.
Blocksom seeks habeas relief on two claims: ineffective assistance of trial counsel and ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Currently before the Court is Blocksom's request for release on bond pending review of these habeas claims. ( See ECF #26.) Because Blocksom has not exhausted his ineffective assistance claims in state court, this Court has entered an Order holding his habeas petition in abeyance and allowing him to present the claims to a state court in a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 6.500 et seq. of the Michigan Court Rules. ( See ECF #43.) Blocksom asks this Court to release him from custody while the state court reviews his claims and, if the state court denies the claims, while this Court then reviews them. ( See ECF #26.)
Despite the strength of Blocksom's preliminary showing on the merits, for all of the reasons stated herein, the Court DENIES his motion for release on bond. A petitioner seeking release on bond pending federal review of his habeas claims - i.e., before obtaining any relief - bears a very high burden and must make a showing of exceptional circumstances going beyond the strength of his claims on their merits. Blocksom has not made such a showing, and he is thus not entitled to an order from this Court releasing him at this time. Blocksom may ultimately be entitled to relief from this Court, but he is not entitled to release now.
RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND
On December 29, 2005, Blocksom was charged in a two-count Misdemeanor Complaint in the 95B District Court for the State of Michigan. ( See the "Misdemeanor Complaint, " ECF #21-2 at 1, Pg. ID 906.) Count I charged indecent exposure in violation of M.C.L. § 750.335a; that charge was a one-yearmisdemeanor. ( See id. ) Count II charged Blocksom with being a sexually delinquent person in violation of M.C.L. § 750.10a. ( See id. ) This charge subjected Blocksom to an enhanced sentence of "1 day to life." ( See id. ) Attorney Thomas Byczek was appointed to represent Blocksom in the state district court (hereinafter, Blocksom's "district court attorney").
Prior to Blocksom's scheduled trial, his district court attorney and the state-court prosecutor reached an agreement on a plea bargain. As the prosecutor explained during a March 31, 2006, plea hearing, "[i]n exchange for an acceptable plea of guilty or no contest to the charge of Indecent Exposure, [the State of Michigan would] dismiss the Sexually Delinquent Person Notice and recommend a 30 day jail cap." (ECF #21-5 at 3, Pg. ID 927.) Pursuant to this agreement, Blocksom entered a plea of no contest and the state district court accepted that plea.
On May 18, 2006, Blocksom appeared before the state district court for sentencing. At that sentencing hearing, the state district court judge refused to accept the prosecution's recommendation of a 30-day sentence. The judge told Blocksom instead that he would impose a sentence of 180-days in custody, with 90 days suspended. ( See ECF #21-6 at 4-5, Pg. ID 936-937.) The judge also told Blocksom that because he intended to impose a stricter sentence than the one to which Blocksom had agreed in his plea bargain, that Blocksom had the "option  of withdrawing [his] plea" and proceeding to trial. ( Id. at 5, Pg. ID 937.) Critically, the judge also informed Blocksom that if he went to trial, that "I would be free to sentence you up to a maximum of a year in the county jail." ( Id. ) The judge said nothing about any possible greater exposure - i.e., beyond the one-year sentence - that Blocksom could face if he withdrew his plea and proceeded to trial.
Before making a decision on the state district court's offer, Blocksom met with his district court attorney. That attorney explained to Blocksom the two options he had to choose from: (1) maintain his plea and accept the district court's stiffer sentence; or (2) withdraw his plea and go to trial, with the understanding that if Blocksom was convicted, Blocksom could be sentenced to a year in custody. According to Blocksom, his district court attorney specifically told him that even if he was convicted, his maximum possible sentence was one year and that the enhanced sentence for the sexually delinquent person charge was "off the table." ( Affidavit of Stephen Blocksom, ECF #22-2 at ¶3.) Blocksom's district court attorney has further confirmed that, at the time of this conversation with Blocksom, it was his belief that Blocksom could only "face a sentence of one year." ( ...