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Brownlee v. Chapman

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

October 25, 2019

WILLIS CHAPMAN, Warden[1], Respondent.


          Paul D. Borman, United States District Judge.

         This is a habeas case filed by a Michigan prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner Dennis E. Brownlee was convicted after he pled no contest in the Oakland Circuit Court to two counts of kidnapping, one count of unarmed robbery, two counts of resisting a police officer, one count of assault with a dangerous weapon, and to being a fourth-time habitual felony offender. Petitioner was sentenced to a string of concurrent terms of imprisonment, the longest of which is 225 to 480 months for his kidnapping convictions.

         The petition claims that Petitioner's plea was involuntarily entered when his attorneys erroneously informed him that his mental status related defenses would be preserved for appeal despite his no contest plea. The Court will deny the petition because the claim lacks merit. The Court will also deny Petitioner's Motion to Proceed In Forma Pauperis for Appointment of Counsel (ECF No. 12) as moot. Finally, the Court will deny Petitioner a certificate of appealability and deny permission to appeal in forma pauperis.

         I. Background

         On the morning trial was set to commence the parties discussed the status of plea negotiations. The prosecutor stated that Petitioner faced a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence if he was convicted as a fourth-time habitual felony offender. (ECF No. 9-8, PgID 170.) The prosecutor indicated that the state had offered a plea deal to Petitioner whereby he would plead guilty to the charged offenses, but the mandatory minimum term would be dismissed along with the possibility of consecutive sentencing. The prosecutor further agreed to a minimum term of 225 months. (Id. at PgID 170-71.)

         Petitioner then addressed the court at length and stated that he was suffering from mental illness at the time of the crimes, and he complained that his defense attorneys did not adequately explore a defense on those grounds. (Id. at PgID 173-75.) The trial court responded that it had not observed anything during the proceedings that would call into question the performance of his counsel or that Petitioner had a viable insanity defense that required an evaluation at the Forensic Center. (Id.)

         The court informed Petitioner once again of the terms of the plea offer, stating:

That's the offer that's on the table. It is entirely up to you whether you choose to accept that offer or whether you go to trial. And I want to give you the assurance that as a judge for twenty years I have never ever punished anyone for their decision to go to trial. That's your decision and your decision alone.

(Id. at PgID 179.)

         Petitioner responded, “I'll accept the plea.” (Id.)

         The trial court then placed Petitioner under oath. Petitioner was informed of the rights he would be waiving by entering his no contest plea, including the right to a trial of any kind. (Id. at PgID 180.) Petitioner denied the existence of any additional promises that were not placed on the record. (Id.) The trial court informed Petitioner, “You also understand that a plea of no contest is a waiver of your right to appeal your conviction and sentence by right and you can only appeal if the Court of Appeals agrees to hear your case?” (Id.) Petitioner indicated his understanding. (Id.) At no point during the colloquy did Petitioner indicate his understanding that he would be preserving the ability to raise his mental status defense on appeal.

         At sentencing, the trial court noted the benefit Petitioner received under the terms of the plea agreement in avoiding the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence and the possibility of consecutive terms. (ECF No. 9-9, at PgID 195-96.) The court then sentenced Petitioner as indicated above. (Id. at PgID 196-97.)

         Petitioner was subsequently appointed appellate counsel who filed a motion to withdraw the plea. Petitioner argued that his trial counsel, Sanford, failed to inform him that his plea would have the effect of waiving any claim on appeal that his mental illness provided a defense to the charges. He also alleged that another attorney, Taylor, met with him and Sanford at the jail, and Taylor erroneously told him that a no contest plea is a conditional plea that allowed him to assert defenses to the charges on appeal. (ECF No. 9-14, PgID 318-21.)

         The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion, at which the two defense attorneys and Petitioner testified. Sanford testified that she advised Petitioner that by entering a plea he would “not have an automatic right to appeal, ” and that any appeal would be by leave and not by right. (ECF No. 9-11, at PgID 227.) The prosecutor asked Sanford whether Petitioner asked her about his ability to continue pursuing his defense after entering a no contest plea, and she said that he did not. (Id. at PgID 238.) Sanford denied that Petitioner's “reason for pleading [no contest] was that he knew he could still follow through and appeal these issues that had been discussed before[.]” (Id.) Sanford testified that she was familiar with conditional ...

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