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Lucaj v. Stewart

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

December 13, 2016

Valona Lucaj, Petitioner,
v.
Anthony Stewart, Respondent.

          Mona K. Majzoub Mag. Judge.

          OPINION AND ORDER SUMMARILY DENYING THE PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS [1], GRANTING A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY ON ONE ISSUE, AND GRANTING LEAVE TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS

          JUDITH E. LEVY United States District Judge.

         Petitioner Valona Lucaj, confined at the Huron Valley Women's Complex in Ypsilanti, Michigan, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges her sentence for her conviction of involuntary manslaughter (keeping a dangerous animal causing death). Mich. Comp. Laws § 287.323(1). For the reasons set forth below, the petition is summarily denied, a certificate of appealability is granted as to one issue, and leave to appeal in forma pauperis is granted.

         I. Background

         Petitioner and her husband were charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter (keeping a dangerous animal causing death) after two of their dogs escaped their property in Metamora Township, Michigan, and killed a man who was jogging.

         Petitioner pled nolo contendere in the Lapeer County Circuit Court to the involuntary manslaughter charge and the second-degree murder charge was dropped. The parties agreed that the judge could exceed the sentencing guidelines at the highest point by six months and that doing so would not be an appealable issue. Petitioner was sentenced to four years, nine months to fifteen years in prison and was fined $7500. Her conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. People v. Lucaj, No. 331129 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2016), leave to appeal denied People v. Lucaj, 499 Mich. 987 (2016).

         Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds: (1) the trial court erred by incorrectly scoring certain variables under Michigan's sentencing guidelines, resulting in a violation of her due process and statutory rights at sentencing; and (2) the trial court erred by imposing the fine at sentencing because the fine was imposed outside the plea agreement. (Dkt. 1) On the second claim, Petitioner seeks only that the Court vacate the fine. (Id.)

         II. Analysis

         A petition for a writ of habeas corpus must set forth facts that give rise to a cause of action under federal law or it may be summarily dismissed. See Perez v. Hemingway, 157 F.Supp.2d 790, 796 (E.D. Mich. 2001). Any habeas petition that appears legally insufficient on its face may be dismissed. McFarland v. Scott, 512 U.S. 849, 856 (1994); see Carson v. Burke, 178 F.3d 434, 436 (6th Cir. 1999) (a habeas corpus petition may be summarily dismissed if it plainly appears from the face of the petition or the exhibits that are attached to it that the petitioner is not entitled to federal habeas relief).

         Thus, “a show cause order [to the respondent]” should not issue “until after the District Court first has made a careful examination of the petition.” Allen v. Perini, 424 F.2d 134, 140 (6th Cir. 1970). The district court must screen any habeas petition, and a response is unnecessary when the petition is frivolous, obviously lacks merit, or the necessary facts can be determined from the petition itself without consideration of a return by the state. Id. at 141. For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief on her sentencing claims, and the petition is summarily denied. See McIntosh v. Booker, 300 F.Supp.2d 498, 499 (E.D. Mich. 2004).

         State courts are the final arbiters of state law. See Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S. 74, 76 (2005); Sanford v. Yukins, 288 F.3d 855, 860 (6th Cir. 2002). Claims that arise out of a state trial court's sentencing decision are not normally cognizable on federal habeas review, unless the petitioner can show that the sentence exceeded the statutory limits or is wholly unauthorized by law. See Vliet v. Renico, 193 F.Supp.2d 1010, 1014 (E.D. Mich. 2002). Thus, a sentence within the statutory limits or otherwise authorized by law is not subject to habeas review. Townsend v. Burke, 334 U.S. 736, 741 (1948); Cook v. Stegall, 56 F.Supp.2d 788, 797 (E.D. Mich. 1999).

         Petitioner's claim that the state trial court incorrectly scored or miscalculated her sentencing guidelines range under the Michigan Sentencing Guidelines (Dkt. 1 at 14-20) is not a cognizable claim on federal habeas review. See Tironi v. Birkett, 252 F. App'x 724, 725 (6th Cir. 2007); Howard v. White, 76 F. App'x 52, 53 (6th Cir. 2003); McPhail v. Renico, 412 F.Supp.2d 647, 656 (E.D. Mich. 2006). Errors in the application of state sentencing guidelines cannot independently support habeas relief. See Kissner v. Palmer, 826 F.3d 898, 904 (6th Cir. 2016). Such errors, alone, do not violate federal due process rights. Austin v. Jackson, 213 F.3d 298, 301 (6th Cir. 2000).

         However, read in the light most favorable to her, Petitioner also seems to argue that the trial court judge violated her Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury by using factors during sentencing that had not been submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt or admitted to by petitioner. Any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime is an element of the criminal offense that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. See Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 2155 (2013). But facts influencing judicial discretion in sentencing need not meet the same threshold. Id. at 2163.

         Under Michigan law, only the minimum sentence must presumptively be set within the appropriate sentencing guidelines range. See People v. Babcock,469 Mich. 247, 255 n.7 (2003) (citing Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.34(2)). The maximum sentence is not determined by the trial judge; rather, it is set by law. See ...


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