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Adams v. Hoffner

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

February 5, 2018




         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Promptly after the filing of a petition for habeas corpus, the Court must undertake a preliminary review of the petition to determine whether “it plainly appears from the face of the petition and any exhibits annexed to it that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court.” Rule 4, Rules Governing § 2254 Cases; see 28 U.S.C. § 2243. If so, the petition must be summarily dismissed. Rule 4; see Allen v. Perini, 424 F.2d 134, 141 (6th Cir. 1970) (district court has the duty to “screen out” petitions that lack merit on their face). A dismissal under Rule 4 includes those petitions which raise legally frivolous claims, as well as those containing factual allegations that are palpably incredible or false. Carson v. Burke, 178 F.3d 434, 436-37 (6th Cir. 1999). After undertaking the review required by Rule 4, the Court concludes that the petition must be dismissed because it fails to raise a meritorious federal claim.


         I. Factual allegations

         Petitioner Joshua Levi Adams is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) in Coldwater, Branch County, Michigan. Petitioner initially was charged with three alternative offenses arising out of his operation of a motor vehicle while drunk, causing an accident leading to death of a passenger: second-degree murder, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing death, and operating with a suspended license causing death. (Mot. to Withdraw Plea, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.99-100.) Petitioner also was charged as a third-offense felony offender, Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.11. On October 22, 2015, in exchange for an agreement to sentence Petitioner to a minimum sentence of 13 years and maximum sentence of 30 years and dismissal of the other charges and habitual-offender notice, Petitioner pleaded guilty in the Van Buren County Circuit Court to second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317. On November 16, 2015, the court sentenced Petitioner to imprisonment for 13 to 30 years.

         On May 16, 2016, Petitioner, through appellate counsel, filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, raising three theories of why his conviction and sentence were improper: (1) he was prosecuted under the wrong statute; (2) the prosecutor abused his charging authority; and (3) the conviction on second-degree murder was not supported by a sufficient factual basis. (See Register of Action, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.52; Mot. to Withdraw Guilty Plea, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.83.) Following a hearing held on June 20, 2016, the trial court denied the motion, holding that numerous factors set forth in the presentence report, to which Petitioner posed no objection, elevated the charge to second-degree murder, rather than operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing death: Petitioner was driving on a suspended license; his blood alcohol content was .185, over twice the legal limit; he was speeding on a gravel road during the evening hours; his car was littered with beer cans, some with beer still in them, and it contained a partially consumed whiskey bottle; Petitioner and his passengers rode without seatbelts; music was blaring from the stereo; and Petitioner previously had been involved in an alcohol-related driving crash and had been warned by his probation agent of the dangers of drinking and driving. (Mot. to Withdraw Guilty Plea, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.103-104.) Under the circumstances, the court found more than sufficient evidence to support a finding of the malice necessary to prove second-degree murder.

         Petitioner sought leave to appeal to both the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court, raising the same three grounds presented to the trial court on the motion to withdraw the plea. Those courts denied leave to appeal on July 28, 2016, and January 5, 2017, respectively.

         In September 2017, Petitioner filed a motion for relief from judgment in the Van Buren County Circuit Court. In his motion, Petitioner argued two new issues: (1) his appellate attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to raise obvious and significant issues on appeal; and (2) his trial attorney failed to inform him of the intoxication defense to second-degree murder, rendering his guilty plea involuntary. (Mot. for Relief from J., ECF No. 1-1, PageID.123, 125.) In an order issued on October 18, 2017, the circuit court denied the motion, because Petitioner's claims had not been raised on appeal and Petitioner failed to demonstrate either cause or actual prejudice arising out of the alleged errors, since voluntary intoxication is not a defense to second-degree murder. The court further reiterated that the case involved a level of misconduct beyond that of drunk driving, given the many aggravating circumstances showing malice. (Id., PageID.136-137.) Petitioner has not sought leave to appeal the trial court's determination.

         On December 15, 2017, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition. Under Sixth Circuit precedent, the application is deemed filed when handed to prison authorities for mailing to the federal court. Cook v. Stegall, 295 F.3d 517, 521 (6th Cir. 2002). Petitioner signed his application on December 15, 2017. (Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.14.) The petition was received by the Court on December 27, 2017. For purposes of this Report and Recommendation, I have given Petitioner the benefit of the earliest possible filing date. See Brand v. Motley, 526 F.3d 921, 925 (6th Cir. 2008) (holding that the date the prisoner signs the document is deemed under Sixth Circuit law to be the date of handing to officials) (citing Goins v. Saunders, 206 F. App'x 497, 498 n.1 (6th Cir. 2006)).

         The petition raises only the three grounds presented to the state courts on direct appeal:

I. The conviction and sentence in this case are invalid because there was no appropriate authority to prosecute and convict defendant on Second Degree Murder, Drunk Driving Causing Death was the more appropriate criminal statute, accordingly the prosecution and conviction under the Murder Second Degree statute violated Defendant's Due Process Rights.
II. The prosecution abused it[]s charging authority by selecting murder as the charged offense in this case.
III. Defendant's plea to Second Degree Murder is invalid for having an insufficient factual basis in violation of defendant's Constitutional Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights.

(Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.18-19.)

         Upon review, the Court concludes that Petitioner's grounds for relief should be dismissed because they are either noncognizable or lack merit.

         II. AEDPA standard

] This action is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (AEDPA). The AEDPA “prevents federal habeas ‘retrials'” and ensures that state court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under the law. Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693-94 (2002). An application for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person who is incarcerated pursuant to a state conviction cannot be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication: “(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 upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This standard is “intentionally difficult to meet.” Woods v. Donald, 575 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1372');">135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (internal quotation omitted).

         The AEDPA limits the source of law to cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This Court may consider only the “clearly established” holdings, and not the dicta, of the Supreme Court. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Bailey v. Mitchell, 271 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir. 2001). In determining whether federal law is clearly established, the Court may not consider the decisions of lower federal courts. Lopez v. Smith, 135 S.Ct. 1, 3 (2014); Bailey, 271 F.3d at 655. Moreover, “clearly established Federal law” does not include decisions of the Supreme Court announced after the last adjudication of the merits in state court. Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34 (2011). Thus, the inquiry is limited to an examination of the legal landscape as it would have appeared to the Michigan state courts in light of Supreme Court precedent at the time of the state-court adjudication on the merits. Miller v. Stovall, 742 F.3d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Greene, 565 U.S. at 38).

         A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the “contrary to” clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in the Supreme Court's cases, or if it decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Bell, 535 U.S. at 694 (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06). “To satisfy this high bar, a habeas petitioner is required to ‘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.'” Woods, 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)). In other words, “[w]here the precise contours of the right remain unclear, state courts enjoy broad discretion in their adjudication of a prisoner's claims.” White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1705 (2014) (internal quotations omitted).

         The AEDPA requires heightened respect for state factual findings. Herbert v. Billy, 160 F.3d 1131, 1134 (6th Cir. 1998). A determination of a factual issue made by a state court is presumed to be correct, and the petitioner has the burden of rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Lancaster v. Adams, 324 F.3d 423, 429 (6th Cir. 2003); Bailey, 271 F.3d at 656. This presumption of correctness is accorded to findings of state appellate courts, as well as the trial court. See Sumner v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539, 546 (1981); Smith v. Jago, 888 F.2d 399, 407 n.4 (6th Cir. 1989).

         III. Impermissible Charging and Conviction for Second-Degree Murder

         In his first ground for relief, Petitioner argues that the court lacked authority to prosecute him on the charge of second-degree murder. In Ground II, he argues that the prosecution abused its authority by charging him with second-degree murder. The two grounds are intertwined, and the Court will address them together.

         Petitioner argues that second-degree murder, which authorizes a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, is a general offense that did not constitute an appropriate offense for the crime committed. Instead, he argues that the prosecutor should have charged him with and he should have been convicted of the more specific statute of operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OUIL), causing death, Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.625(4), which has a 15-year maximum sentence. Petitioner contends that his criminal conduct was no more serious than that required for the lesser offense of drunk driving causing death, and he argues that, under the usual rules of statutory construction, where there exists a statutory conflict, the specific controls over the general. In the state courts, Petitioner raised his argument primarily under state law. However, he also invoked the rule of lenity set forth in United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507 (2008), which is the longstanding principle of statutory construction that “ambiguous criminal laws [are] to be interpreted in favor of the defendants subjected to them.” Id. at 514 (citing, inter alia, United States v. Gradwell, 243 U.S. 476, 485 (1917); McBoyle v. United States, 283 U.S. 25, 27 (1931); United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 347-349 (1971)).

         In the consolidated case of People v. Goecke, 579 N.W.2d 868 (Mich. 1998), the Michigan Supreme Court held that not all drunk driving cases that result in death support a trial for second-degree murder, but instead should be prosecuted under the offense of OUIL causing death, Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.625(4). See Goecke, 579 N.W.2d at 880. Nevertheless, the Goecke court held that, where sufficient evidence exists to support the existence of malice, a charge of second-degree murder can arise from drunk driving causing death. Under Michigan law, “[m]alice is defined as the intent to kill, the intent to cause great bodily harm, or the intent to do an act in wanton and wilful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of such behavior is to cause death or great bodily harm.” Id. at 878 (citing People v. Aaron, 409 Mich. 672, 728, 299 N.W.2d 304 (1980)). The Goecke court indicated that it was the third form of malice - the willful disregard of the likelihood that such behavior will cause death or great bodily harm - is implicated in cases such as Petitioner's. Id. And the court recognized that voluntary intoxication was not a defense to the crime. Id. The court nevertheless concluded that the circumstances in Goecke itself supported a charge of second-degree murder, based on facts involving a high alcohol content, an ongoing fight, and several apparently intentional attempts to drive another vehicle off the road. Id. at 881. More importantly, however, in another of the consolidated cases, People v. Baker, a charge of second-degree murder was supported by evidence that “the defendant lived within one mile of the scene of the accident, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.18 percent, drove well in excess of the speed limit, ran a red stoplight, drove through an intersection at a time when he could have seen at least three vehicles properly traveling through the intersection, narrowly missed hitting two cars before hitting the victims' car, and killed two people.” Goecke, 579 N.W.2d at 881-82. Similarly, in the other consolidated case at issue in Goecke, People v. Hoskinson, the court found sufficient evidence of malice from the following facts:

Defendant was highly intoxicated when he left the bar in the early evening hours. While still in the bar's parking lot, defendant twice backed into the same parked vehicle. It could be inferred that these collisions put the defendant on notice that he should not be driving. Despite such awareness, defendant drove at a high rate of speed through a residential subdivision. Having driven through this area before, defendant was aware of the speed dips in the road. He swerved to avoid hitting a car stopped at a stop sign, ran through the stop sign, and nearly hit a car driving in the opposite direction. The occupants of defendant's car advised him that he was driving too fast and that he should slow down.
After colliding with a vehicle parked at the side of the road, defendant traveled across the eastbound lane, over a curb, across some grass, and struck the victim. Defendant continued to drive along the grass and sidewalk until he finally reentered the street several hundred yards from the point of impact. Despite the fact that defendant's passengers jumped from the moving vehicle after informing the defendant that he had hit a child, the defendant proceeded to drive another several blocks before coming to a stop.

Id. at 882.

         Relying on Goecke, 579 N.W.2d 868, the trial court twice rejected Petitioner's claims that he should not have been charged or convicted of second-degree murder. At the hearing on Petitioner's motion to withdraw the guilty plea, the court recited the following aggravating facts that supported a finding of malice necessary for second-degree murder:

Prosecution here had before it a person driving on a suspended license with a blood alcohol level .185, over twice the legal limit, evidence of speeding on a gravel road during evening hours, a car that smelled strongly of alcohol littered with beer cans, some with beer still in them and partially consumed whiskey bottle. There was some evidence that Defendant and his passengers rode without seatbelts and that music may have been blaring. There was motion hearing evidence that Defendant had previously been involved in an alcohol-related driving crash and that he'd been warned by his probation agent of the dangers of drinking and driving. So I cannot conclude with all of these facts that the prosecutor exceeded its appropriate charging authority in charging this as a second degree murder case.

(Mot. to Withdraw Plea, ECF No. 1-1, PageID.103-104.) Later, in denying Petitioner's motion for relief from judgment, the trial court again summarized the facts supporting a finding of malice:

An increased level of misconduct exists in this case. Defendant summarily acknowledged such in his plea proceeding. He re-affirmed the same at the sentence hearing when he verified the accuracy of the contents of the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSIR”) prepared by the Michigan Department of Corrections. That report relayed several facts. It noted that Defendant had on three prior occasions been involved in the criminal court system for drinking and driving related offenses. One can infer from this that Defendant was aware of the unlawful nature of his conduct. The PSIR also relayed that Defendant's blood alcohol content was 0.185, over twice the legal limit. The passenger in Defendant's vehicle stated that Defendant was “flying down” the dirt road, the passenger “wondering why they were going so fast.” Defendant was “driving erratically” and “slid off on the right side of the road several times” as his passenger urged him to slow down. The passenger estimated the speed of travel at 70 miles per hour. Partially empty containers of alcohol were located inside the vehicle. One could reasonably infer from this that alcohol consumption was continuing to occur during the driving activity. . . . The court concludes from all of this that Defendant's decision to drive under these circumstances with two passengers is “sufficient credible evidence of probable malice to support . . . a charge of second-degree murder.”

(Order Den. Mot. for Relief from J., ECF No. 1-1, PageID.136-137 (quoting PSIR and Goecke, 579 N.W.2d at 881).) Applying Goecke and the consolidated determinations in Baker and Hoskinson, the trial court held that, under Michigan law, Petitioner was properly prosecuted for and convicted of second-degree murder.

         To the extent that Petitioner disagrees with the trial court's recitation and application of state law, his claim is not cognizable on habeas review. “[A] federal court may issue the writ to a state prisoner ‘only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.'” Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. 1, 5 (2010) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a)). A habeas petition must “state facts that point to a ‘real possibility of constitutional error.'” Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 75 n.7 (1977) (quoting Advisory Committee Notes on Rule 4, Rules Governing Habeas Corpus Cases). The federal courts have no power to intervene on the basis of a perceived error of state law. Wilson, 562 U.S. at 5; Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S. 74, 76 (2005); Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 67-68 (1991); Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 41 (1984). The Sixth Circuit repeatedly has recognized “‘that 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 corpus.'” Stumpf v. Robinson, 722 F.3d 739, 746 n.6 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Bradshaw, 546 U.S. at 76).

         In addition, the trial court's recitation of the supporting evidence of malice is entitled to a presumption of correctness, which may only be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Lancaster, 324 F.3d at 429; Bailey, 271 F.3d at 656. Petitioner makes no effort to rebut the facts recited by the court. He therefore cannot meet the ...

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