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Thomas v. Burt

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

July 13, 2015

SHERRY BURT, Respondent.


DAVID M. LAWSON, District Judge.

Petitioner Shannon Eugene Thomas was the driver of a car involved in a fatal accident. He pleaded guilty in a Michigan court to operating a vehicle while license suspended causing death in violation of Michigan Compiled Laws § 257.904(4), and was sentenced to a prison term of 8 to 20 years, as stipulated in his plea agreement. One consideration for his guilty plea was the sentence cap in light of a fourth felony offender specification, which would have exposed Thomas to a life sentence. Thomas moved to withdraw his guilty plea at the sentencing hearing, arguing that he was charged improperly with the fourth offender specification, his guilty plea was coerced, and he got bad advice from his lawyer. His motion was denied then and again later after a hearing by the trial court. Thomas presented these arguments to the state appellate courts, which summarily denied relief, and again here in a habeas petition filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Because Thomas has not shown any violation of his federal constitutional rights, the Court will deny his habeas petition.


The accident occurred in Ecorse, Michigan on December 24, 2010. Ansel Clark, the petitioner's 18-year-old cousin, was a passenger in the van driven by the petitioner, and was killed in the accident. The petitioner was initially charged with operating a vehicle while license suspended, revoked, or denied causing death; and failure to stop at the scene of an accident when at fault. The state served notice that it intended to seek punishment of the petitioner as a fourth habitual offender.

A preliminary examination was held, and the petitioner was bound over for trial in the Wayne County, Michigan circuit court. On May 26, 2011, a date set for a final pretrial conference, he pleaded guilty under a plea agreement to operating a vehicle while license suspended causing death. The state agreed to dismiss the other charge, and agreed that his sentence would be 8 to 20 years imprisonment. At that hearing, the petitioner indicated that he understood the terms of the agreement, that he understood the rights that he would be giving up by pleading guilty, that he had not been coerced or threatened into taking the plea, and that he was pleading guilty of his own free will. He also provided a factual basis for his plea. The trial court accepted the plea.

On June 15, 2011, the date set for sentencing, the petitioner moved to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming that it was coerced by the prosecution. The trial court denied the motion, discussed and made changes to the pre-sentence report, and sentenced the petitioner to the 8-to-20-year prison term, which the plea agreement specified.

The petitioner subsequently filed a written motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that his plea was invalid. He contended that he was charged improperly as a fourth habitual offender, the sentencing guidelines were incorrectly scored such that his plea was involuntary, and defense counsel was ineffective. The trial court conducted a hearing on January 24, 2012, although it declined to take evidence on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The court found that the petitioner was charged correctly as a fourth habitual offender, the guidelines were scored correctly, and the plea was knowing and voluntary. The court denied the motion.

The petitioner filed a delayed application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals, asserting that the trial court erred by denying his plea withdrawal motion and that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal "for lack of merit in the grounds presented." People v. Thomas, No. 309175 (Mich. Ct. App. June 25, 2012). The Michigan Supreme Court also denied leave to appeal. People v. Thomas, 493 Mich. 892, 822 N.W.2d 554 (2012).

The petitioner thereafter filed his federal habeas petition. He argues that (1) he should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea; (2) he was denied the right to effective assistance of counsel; and (3) he was charged improperly with being a fourth habitual felony offender. In support of his claims, he attaches the brief that his appellate counsel submitted to the Michigan Court of Appeals on direct appeal. The respondent has filed an answer to the petition contending that it should be denied for lack of merit. The petitioner has filed a reply brief asserting that he is entitled to habeas relief.


The provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996), which govern this case, "circumscribe[d]" the standard of review federal courts must apply when considering an application for a writ of habeas corpus raising constitutional claims, including claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. See Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003). Because Thomas filed his petition after the AEDPA's effective date, its standard of review applies. Under that statute, if a claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court's adjudication "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 if the adjudication "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). "Clearly established Federal law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions." White v. Woodall, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "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." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).

The distinction between mere error and an objectively unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent creates a substantially higher threshold for obtaining relief than de novo review. The AEDPA thus imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, and demands that state-court decisions be "given the benefit of the doubt." Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (finding that the state court's rapid declaration of a mistrial on grounds of jury deadlock was not unreasonable even where "the jury only deliberated for four hours, its notes were arguably ambiguous, the trial judge's initial question to the foreperson was imprecise, and the judge neither asked for elaboration of the foreperson's answers nor took any other measures to confirm the foreperson's prediction that a unanimous verdict would not be reached" (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)); see also Dewald v. Wriggelsworth, 748 F.3d 295, 298-99 (6th Cir. 2014); Bray v. Andrews, 640 F.3d 731, 737-39 (6th Cir. 2011); Phillips v. Bradshaw, 607 F.3d 199, 205 (6th Cir. 2010); Murphy v. Ohio, 551 F.3d 485, 493-94 (6th Cir. 2009); Eady v. Morgan, 515 F.3d 587, 594-95 (6th Cir. 2008); Davis v. Coyle, 475 F.3d 761, 766-67 (6th Cir. 2007); Rockwell v. Yukins, 341 F.3d 507, 511 (6th Cir. 2003) (en banc). Moreover, habeas review is "limited to the record that was before the state court." Cullen v. Pinholster, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011).


The petitioner first asserts that he is entitled to habeas relief because the trial court erred when it denied his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The petitioner argued that his guilty plea was involuntary because he was overcharged and over-sentenced. One might be tempted in a case like this - where the petitioner was told of the likely sentence before he pleaded guilty, and actually received the sentence he bargained for - to write off the petitioner's complaint as an instance of buyer's remorse. But here, the petitioner says that he was misled about the potential downside of his predicament: a potential life sentence ...

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