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Kernan v. Cuero

United States Supreme Court

November 6, 2017

SCOTT KERNAN, SECRETARY, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND REHABILITATION
v.
MICHAEL DANIEL CUERO

         ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

          PER CURIAM.

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 provides that a federal court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner based on a claim adjudicated by a state court on the merits if the resulting decision is "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1). In this case, a California court permitted the State to amend a criminal complaint to which the respondent, Michael Cuero, had pleaded guilty. That guilty plea would have led to a maximum sentence of 14 years and 4 months. The court acknowledged that permitting the amendment would lead to a higher sentence, and it consequently permitted Cuero to withdraw his guilty plea. Cuero then pleaded guilty to the amended complaint and was sentenced to a term with a minimum of 25 years.

         A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit subsequently held that the California court had made a mistake of federal law. In its view, the law entitled Cuero to specific performance of the lower 14-year, 4-month sentence that he would have received had the complaint not been amended.

         The question here is whether the state-court decision "involved an unreasonable application o[f] clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." Ibid. Did our prior decisions (1) clearly require the state court to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected; or (2) instead permit the State's sentence-raising amendment where the defendant was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea? Because no decision from this Court clearly establishes that a state court must choose the first alternative, we reverse the Ninth Circuit's decision.

         I

         On October 27, 2005, the State of California charged Michael Cuero with two felonies and a misdemeanor. App. to Pet. for Cert. 26a-33a. Its complaint alleged that on October 14, 2005, Cuero drove his car into, and seriously injured, Jeffrey Feldman, who was standing outside of his parked pickup truck. Id., at 27a-28a. The complaint further alleged that Cuero was then on parole, that he was driving without a license, that he was driving under the influence of methamphetamine, and that he had in his possession a loaded 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. Ibid.

         Cuero initially pleaded "not guilty." But on December 8, he changed his plea. A form entitled "PLEA OF GUILTY/NO CONTEST-FELONY" signed by Cuero, the prosecutor, and the trial court memorialized the terms of Cuero's guilty plea. See id., at 77a-85a. On that form, Cuero pleaded guilty to the two felony counts. Ibid.; see Cal. Veh. Code Ann. §23153(a) (West 2017) (causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of a drug); Cal. Penal Code Ann. §12021(a)(1) (West 2005) (unlawful possession of a firearm). He also admitted that he had previously served four separate prison terms, including a term for residential burglary, which qualifies as a predicate offense under California's "three strikes" law. Cal. Penal Code Ann. §667(a)(1) (West 2017); see Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 15-17 (2003). Finally, Cuero acknowledged on this guilty-plea form that he understood that he "may receive this maximum punishment as a result of my plea: 14 years, 4 months in State Prison, $10, 000 fine and 4 years parole." App. to Pet. for Cert. 80a.

         Following a hearing, the state trial court accepted the plea and granted California's motion to dismiss the remaining misdemeanor charge. The court then scheduled the sentencing hearing for January 11, 2006.

         Before the hearing took place, however, the prosecution determined that another of Cuero's four prior convictions qualified as a "strike" and that the signed guilty-plea form had erroneously listed only one strike. See Cal. Penal Code Ann. §245(a)(1) (assault with a deadly weapon). This second strike meant that Cuero faced not a maximum punishment of just over 14 years (172 months), but a minimum punishment of 25 years. §§667(e)(2)(A)(ii), 1170.12(c)(2)(A)(ii).

         The State asked the trial court for permission to amend the criminal complaint accordingly. It pointed to Cal. Penal Code §969.5(a), which provides:

"Whenever it shall be discovered that a pending complaint to which a plea of guilty has been made under Section 859a does not charge all prior felonies of which the defendant has been convicted either in this state or elsewhere, the complaint may be forthwith amended to charge the prior conviction or convictions and the amendments may and shall be made upon order of the court."

         Cuero argued that the State's motion was untimely and prejudicial. But the trial court granted the motion. At the same time, the court permitted Cuero to withdraw his guilty plea in light of the change. It concluded that §969.5(a) "guide[d]" its inquiry and was best read to reflect a legislative determination that criminal complaints should charge all prior felony convictions. App. to Pet. for Cert. 178a. The court added that the case was distinguishable from "a situation where the [State] might, after a guilty plea, seek to amend" a criminal complaint by adding "new charges" or facts that fundamentally alter the substance of the complaint. Id., at 179a. But here, where only "alleged prior convictions" were at issue, the court could eliminate any prejudice to Cuero by allowing him to withdraw his initial guilty plea, thereby restoring both parties to the status quo prior to its entry. Ibid.

         Soon thereafter, California amended the complaint. The complaint as amended charged Cuero with one felony, (causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of a drug under Cal. Veh. Code Ann. §23153(a)), and it alleged two prior strikes. Cuero then withdrew his initial guilty plea and entered a new guilty plea to the amended complaint. On April 20, 2006, the trial court sentenced Cuero to the stipulated term of 25 years to life. ...


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