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State of New Jersey v. Antoine Stevens

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


August 2, 2011

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ANTOINE STEVENS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 06-12-2112.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted July 26, 2011

Before Judges Sabatino and C.L. Miniman.

This is an appeal from the trial court's denial of post-conviction relief ("PCR"). Following a 2008 jury trial, defendant Antoine Stevens was principally convicted of second-degree possession of heroin in Jersey City with the intent to distribute it within five hundred feet of a public park, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.1. He was also convicted at the same time of other related offenses, including the possession of that same quantity of heroin with the intent to distribute it in a school zone, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.

During the course of the trial, the State moved into evidence a city map that depicted the areas within five hundred feet of a public park. In particular, the map showed that the liquor store at the corner of Stegman Street and Martin Luther King Drive, where the police and other witnesses had seen defendant make an apparent drug purchase shortly before his arrest, was located within five hundred feet of a city park.

We affirmed defendant's conviction on direct appeal, subject only to a remand to merge, for sentencing purposes, the park zone offense with the school zone offense. State v. Stevens, Docket No. A-4166-07 (Jul. 22, 2009), certif. denied, 201 N.J. 145 (2009). As part of our analysis, we rejected defendant's argument that the trial court had improperly admitted into evidence the five-hundred foot map and testimony relating to it. Id., slip op. at 11-12, 24-34. On the ensuing remand, the trial court resentenced defendant in accordance with our instructions.

After the Supreme Court denied certification, defendant filed a petition for PCR with the trial court in November 2009. In his petition, defendant alleged that his trial attorney was constitutionally ineffective, particularly with respect to the evidence that related to defendant's possession of heroin within the requisite distance from a public park.

As part of his PCR application, defendant submitted a one-page memorandum dated April 6, 2010 from an investigator. The investigator had gone to the liquor store where the police had seen defendant make an apparent drug purchase shortly before his arrest.*fn1 The investigator measured the distance from the liquor store to the edge of a city park, Audubon Park. According to the investigator, that distance exceeded five hundred feet, contrary to the State's contention at trial.*fn2

Defendant asserted that his trial attorney should have pursued a similar investigation, and should have presented evidence showing that the liquor store was, in fact, outside of the five-hundred foot radius of the park. Defendant further argued that his trial attorney was deficient in not objecting to the admission at trial of maps and testimony presented by the State showing the relevant distances around the park.

After considering these arguments, the PCR judge, who had also presided over defendant's trial, dismissed the petition. The judge found that defendant's arguments relating to the five hundred foot radius were procedurally barred under Rule 3:22-5 because the issues as to the evidence of that distance had already been raised and adjudicated in the direct appeal. Aside from that procedural bar, the judge also found that defendant's claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel lacked substantive merit. In particular, the judge noted, as we had previously concluded on direct appeal, that there was "ample circumstantial evidence that [defendant] possessed heroin at some point prior to his arrest[,]" and that his possession of it within a park zone could have been reasonably inferred from the trial evidence. The judge found no need to conduct a post-conviction evidentiary hearing, given defendant's failure to present a prima facie basis to set aside the final judgment.

On this appeal, defendant raises the following points:

POINT I

THE PCR COURT ERRED IN DENYING DEFENDANT'S PETITION FOR POST-CONVICTION RELIEF AS TRIAL COUNSEL'S CONDUCT WAS DEFICIENT WHEN HE FAILED TO CHALLENGE THE STATE'S EXPERT BY ENGAGING AN EXPERT TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE DISTANCE OF THE LIQUOR STORE WHERE DEFENDANT ALLEGEDLY ENGAGED IN A CDS TRANSACTION TO AUDUBON PARK MEASURED 500 FEET.

POINT II

THE PCR COURT ERRED IN DENYING DEFENDANT'S REQUEST FOR AND [sic] EVIDENTIARY HEARING AS DEFENDANT HAS ESTABLISHED A PRIMA FACIE CASE SUFFICIENT TO REQUIRE REMAND FOR AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING.

POINT III

THE CUMULATIVE ERRORS OF TRIAL COUNSEL DENIED DEFENDANT A FAIR TRIAL AND THEREFORE THE PCR COURT ERRED IN DENYING DEFENDANT'S PETITION FOR POST-CONVICTION RELIEF.

POINT IV

DEFENDANT INCORPORATES BY REFERENCE THE ARGUMENTS CONTAINED IN HIS INITIAL VERIFIED PETITION AND IN ANY PRO SE SUPPLEMENTAL BRIEF.

Having fully considered defendant's arguments, we affirm the dismissal of his PCR petition, substantially for the cogent reasons stated in Judge Fred J. Theemling's written opinion of June 17, 2010. We add only a few comments.

To establish a deprivation of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel, a convicted defendant must satisfy the two-part test enunciated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 2064, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674, 693 (1984), by demonstrating that: (1) counsel's performance was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance actually prejudiced the accused's defense. Ibid.; see also State v. Fritz, 105 N.J. 42, 58 (1987) (adopting the Strickland two-part test in New Jersey). When reviewing such claims, we apply a strong presumption that defense counsel "rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Strickland, supra, 466 U.S. at 690, 104 S. Ct. at 2066, 80 L. Ed. 2d at 695. "[C]complaints 'merely of matters of trial strategy' will not serve to ground a constitutional claim of inadequacy . . . [.]" Fritz, supra, 105 N.J. at 54 (quoting State v. Williams, 39 N.J. 471, 489, cert. denied, 374 U.S. 855, 83 S. Ct. 1924, 10 L. Ed. 2d 1075 (1963), overruled in part on other grounds by State v. Czachor, 82 N.J. 392, 402 (1980)); see also State v. Echols, 199 N.J. 344, 357-59 (2009).

"The quality of counsel's performance cannot be fairly assessed by focusing on a handful of issues while ignoring the totality of counsel's performance in the context of the State's evidence of defendant's guilt." State v. Castagna, 187 N.J. 293, 314 (2006) (citing State v. Marshall, 123 N.J. 1, 165 (1991), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 929, 113 S. Ct. 1306, 122 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1993)). "As a general rule, strategic miscalculations or trial mistakes are insufficient to warrant reversal 'except in those rare instances where they are of such magnitude as to thwart the fundamental guarantee of [a] fair trial.'" Castagna, supra, 187 N.J. at 314-15 (quoting State v. Buonadonna, 122 N.J. 22, 42 (1991)).

We detect no such fundamental deprivation in this case with respect to trial counsel's handling of the five-hundred-foot issue. The law relating to park zone and school zone prosecutions does not require that a defendant be actually observed possessing drugs within the prohibited zone. Rather, the jury may draw circumstantial inferences of actual or constructive possession within the zone from the evidence as a whole. See, e.g., State v. Lewis, 185 N.J. 363, 368-75 (2005). We applied these principles on direct appeal in affirming defendant's conviction. Defendant may not use the PCR process to relitigate the issues concerning the five-hundred-foot radius. See R. 3:22-4.

Even if, as defendant maintains, the place of his arrest and the liquor store were both situated outside of a park zone, that does not preclude a circumstantial inference that he passed through the zone that day with heroin in his possession. The measurements from one corner of the liquor store to Audubon Park now being proffered by defendant do not conclusively refute the State's map. Indeed, according to Judge Theemling's written opinion, the state's map showed that the liquor store is located within five hundred feet of a second park, in addition to Audubon Park.*fn3 It is speculative to assume that those incomplete measurements would have produced an acquittal on the park-zone count, had such evidence been presented by defendant's trial attorney.

Moreover, defendant's trial counsel did object to the admission of the five-hundred-foot map and cross-examined the State's witnesses concerning the locations in question. The fact that he was unsuccessful in keeping that evidence out and in swaying the fact-finders about its alleged lack of probative value does not mean that his advocacy was constitutionally ineffective.

We also agree that no evidentiary hearing was required to rule on the PCR petition. Defendant did not present a prima facie case rising to the level of a constitutional violation under the Strickland two-part test. See State v. Preciose, 129 N.J. 451, 463 (1992).

Defendant's remaining arguments, including those advanced in his pro se submissions incorporated by reference in his appellate counsel's brief, lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2).

Affirmed.


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