United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
January 26, 2015
Randall Mitchell, Petitioner
Mary Berghuis, Respondent
Randall Mitchell, Petitioner, Pro se, Carson City, MI USA.
For Mary Berghuis, Respondent: John S. Pallas, Laura Moody, Michigan Department of Attorney General, Appellate Division, Lansing, MI USA.
James G. Carr, Sr. U.S. District Judge 
This is a § 2254 habeas corpus case in which the petitioner, convicted in the Wayne County, Michigan, Circuit Court of various firearms offenses, challenges his conviction on the basis of:
o I. Impermissible failure to permit him to waive his right to counsel at trial;
o II. Wrongful admission of propensity evidence;
o III. Error of legal interpretation of the term " toward" at sentencing vis-a-vis a sentencing enhancement; and
o IV. Error of legal interpretation of the term " separate" at sentencing vis-a-vis a sentencing enhancement;
The respondent's answer asserts that petitioner's second claim is defaulted and the rest fail on the merits.
For the reasons that follow, I find no grounds for relief and deny the petition.
Petitioner and the victim, Mia Robinson, had been lovers. During the time they were together, petitioner had purchased a vehicle and registered it in Robinson's name. Over her objection, he had listed himself as a secured party.
After they broke up, petitioner took (" stole, " according to a police report Robinson filed) the car. He also broke into her residence and put his name on the title. When petitioner, who had been physically abusive during the relationship, encountered Robinson later the same day at a store, he assaulted her.
The next day, May 3, 2010, Robinson saw petitioner slash one of the tires on the car.
On May 23, Robinson, her child, and a friend and the friend's child were on Robinson's front porch. Petitioner's new girlfriend, Monica Holland, drove by, accompanied by petitioner. He leaned out of the car and asked if he could talk with Robinson. She refused, as she had a protective order.
Three to five minutes later, petitioner returned. He pulled out two guns, clinked them together, and said, " y'all want gun play?" Then he shot each weapon twice, with three of the bullets striking Ms. Robinson's vehicle. The car was parked about thirty feet from the porch where the victim, her friend, and the children were.
Petitioner's arrest and prosecution followed.
After a two-day bench trial, the trial judge found petitioner guilty of felonious assault, intentional discharge of a firearm from a motor vehicle, possession of a firearm by a felon, carrying a concealed weapon, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, malicious destruction of property, and stalking.
The judge sentenced petitioner as a habitual offender to a six- to-fifteen-year term
Petitioner took an appeal of right. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. The Michigan Supreme Court denied his application for leave to appeal. He filed the instant habeas petition within the statute of limitations.
Congress has limited the availability of federal habeas corpus relief " with respect to any claim" the state courts " adjudicated on the merits." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Petitioner can obtain relief only if his conviction either:
(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.
What matters are the Supreme Court's decisions on matters of federal constitutional law; under § 2254(d)(1), they alone are controlling. On the other hand, " a state court's interpretation of state law, including one announced on direct appeal of the challenged conviction, binds a federal court sitting in habeas review." Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S. 74, 76, 126 S.Ct. 602, 163 L.Ed.2d 407 (2005). Likewise, state court factual findings are presumptively correct; only clear and convincing evidence can overcome that presumption. E.g., Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473-74, 127 S.Ct. 1933, 167 L.Ed.2d 836 (2007).
A. Faretta Claim
Petitioner's first contention is that the state courts violated his right to self-representation. Under Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975), a trial court must be persuaded that, as with all waivers of fundamental rights (in this case, the right to counsel at trial), the waiver is knowing and intelligent. To that end, the court must find the defendant knows " what he is doing and his choice is made with eyes wide open." Id. at 835.
Before making its decision, the trial court here engaged in a colloquy with petitioner to ascertain if he understood the risks inherent in proceeding pro se . The court concluded that the petitioner was unaware of those risks, and declined to find his proffered waiver acceptable.
On direct appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals thoroughly reviewed the trial court's colloquy, concurring in " the trial court's finding that defendant did not knowingly and intelligently waive his right to counsel." People v. Mitchell, 2012 WL 6720595, *2 (Mich. App.).
The appellate court stated that petitioner's responses indicated " he did not adequately understand the risks" of pro se representation. The predicate for the court's conclusions was its examination of the colloquy:
The [trial] court also asked if defendant was prepared for trial, and defendant replied " I guess." Trial courts should not permit defendants to act as their own counsel if the validity of their waiver of their right to counsel is doubtful. The [trial] court took note of the complexity of the charges and defendant's limited education, and it further observed that, " Every question that I've asked you, [and] you have gone on at length, you've not always answered the questions . . ." While technical knowledge is not relevant to a defendant's exercise of his right to self-representation, a defendant's apparent ability to remain coherent and intelligibly responsive to the issues certainly is relevant. Finally, defendant's request was made late in the proceedings, after the prosecution had made its opening statement. . . . Based on the facts, the judge did not clearly err in its factual findings, or in the determination that defendant failed to knowingly and intelligently waive his rights.
In light of its review of the record, the Court of Appeals found the trial court had denied petitioner's request for pro se representation because of: 1) his lack of understanding of the risks; 2) the uncertainty of his decision; 3) the complexity of the charges; 4) his limited education; 5) his lack of coherent and intelligible answers to the trial court's question; and 6) the stage in the proceedings when he made the request.
The presumption of correctness attaches to the state court factual determinations underlying the conclusion of inability to proceed pro se . The conclusion of law the state courts reached -- namely, that petitioner's waiver was insufficient, so that his right of self-representation was not being unconstitutionally abrogated -- is not contrary to clearly established federal law.
Indeed, as respondent argues, the Court of Appeals decision conforms entirely with existing Supreme Court precedent on the elements of a valid waiver of a constitutional right. As the Court stated in its pathbreaking decision, Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464, 58 S.Ct. 1019, 82 L.Ed. 1461 (1938), whether a waiver of the right to counsel is knowing and intelligent depends on particular facts, especially those relating the the defendant's " background, experience, and conduct."
The Court elaborated somewhat on the factors a trial judge should look at in Iowa v. Tovar, 541 U.S. 77, 88, 124 S.Ct. 1379, 158 L.Ed.2d 209 (2004), namely, " the defendant's education or sophistication, the complex or easily grasped nature of the charge, and the stage of the proceeding."
The decision of both the trial court generally and the appellate court in particular conformed to these requirements for assessing the petitioner's effort to waive counsel. Simply put, nothing in the petitioner's experience, conduct, grasp of the risks and dangers, or apparent level of mental acuity would have supported a finding that his waiver was knowing and intelligent. Moreover, his request came late, and bears, quite simply, the hallmarks of a disruptive stalling tactic.
The decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals is, as respondent argues, both correct and reasonable. Petitioner has failed to show that the state courts refusal to allow him to represent himself was either contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, controlling Supreme Court precedent or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.
B. Admission of Alleged Propensity Evidence
Petitioner claims that the trial court improperly admitted the victim's testimony that he had committed past acts of domestic violence.
Petitioner's ability to obtain relief on this ground collides directly with Estelle v. McGuire, , 502 U.S. 62, 112 S.Ct. 475, 116 L.Ed.2d 385 (1991), which precludes habeas review of the propriety of state court interpretations and applications of state law -- such as evidentiary rules and doctrines. " Such an inquiry, " the Court stressed, " is no part of the federal court's habeas review of a state conviction"; indeed, " it is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Id. at 67-68.
Rather, a habeas court's authority " is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." Id. at 68; cf. Bugh v. Mitchell, 329 F.3d 496, 512 (6th Cir. 2003) (" There is no clearly established Supreme Court precedent which holds that a state violates due process by permitting propensity evidence in the form of other bad acts evidence.").
In any event, there was no error: the past acts of violence toward the victim were relevant and material on the issue of intent and motive. Moreover, any error in the admission of this evidence was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of petitioner's guilt. See Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637-38, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993).
C. Sentencing Issues
Petitioner claims the trial court mis-applied Michigan's sentencing guidelines.
This state-law claim is not cognizable on federal habeas review. See, e.g., Austin v. Jackson, 213 F.3d 298, 301 (6th Cir. 2000) (" Petitioner fails to articulate the grounds upon which the trial court's departure from the Michigan Sentencing guidelines violates any federal due process right he possesses."). The doctrine of non-cognizability is so well established that the Circuit often disposes of claims like this in unpublished decisions. See, e.g., Coleman v. Curtin, 425 F.App'x 483, 484-85 (6th Cir., 2011); Tironi v. Birkett, 252 F.App'x 724 (6th Cir. 2007); Howard v. White, 76 F.App'x 52, 53 (6th Cir. 2003); Cheatham v. Hosey, 1993 WL 478854, *2 (6th Cir.).
There is no merit to any of petitioner's claims. No error of federal constitutional dimension infected the process leading to his conviction.
It is, accordingly,
ORDERED THAT the petition for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 be, and the same hereby is denied.
I decline to grant a certificate of appealability, as petitioner has not made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.