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State of New Jersey v. Benny Figueroa

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


March 2, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BENNY FIGUEROA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment No. 05-08-00205.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted: February 1, 2012

Before Judges Cuff and Waugh.

Defendant Benny Figueroa appeals from the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). A jury found defendant guilty of third degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) (cocaine), N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1); third degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1) and N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5b(3); two counts of third degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7; and third degree distribution of cocaine, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) and N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(3). He is serving an extended term of ten years in prison subject to a five-year period of parole ineligibility.

We affirmed his conviction on direct appeal, State v. Figueroa, No. A-4154-06 (App. Div. July 21, 2008). Defendant filed a pro se PCR petition on December 18, 2008, in which he asserted among other things that he never received notice that the State would request an extended term. Therefore, he argued the extended term was illegal. Assigned counsel submitted a brief in support of defendant's petition in which he argued that the trial judge should not have permitted the State to introduce the laboratory certificate after defendant rested his case. Counsel also contended that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel because he did not interview the co-defendant or conduct any pre-trial investigation of the charges against defendant.

Judge Ramona Santiago denied the petition. The judge found that defendant qualified for imposition of an extended term pursuant to either N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6f (mandatory extended term) or N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3a (discretionary extended term). The judge also held that defendant was not entitled to notice of the State's intention to seek an extended term because notice and a hearing are required only if the extended term is imposed in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, or N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5.1. Addressing defendant's contention about the introduction of the laboratory certificate, Judge Santiago held that Rule 3:22-5 barred this argument because it had been raised and addressed in his direct appeal. Finally, Judge Santiago rejected defendant's contention that trial counsel failed to conduct a thorough pre-trial investigation. The judge noted that defendant failed to produce any evidence that an investigation would have produced anything that would have altered the outcome of the trial.

On appeal, defendant raises the following arguments:

POINT ONE

DEFENDANT WAS DENIED EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL AT HIS TRIAL, DIRECT APPEAL AND POST CONVICTION RELIEF PROCEEDINGS IN VIOLATION OF HIS RIGHTS UNDER THE UNITED STATES AND NEW JERSEY STATE CONSTITUTIONS AND NEW JERSEY COURT RULES.

POINT TWO THE PCR COURT ERRED IN MAKING FACTUAL FINDINGS WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING.

Defendant argues that he was afforded ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, on direct appeal and during the PCR proceedings. Defendant contends that PCR counsel did not advance his sentencing argument, raised a procedurally barred argument, and failed to support the contention that trial counsel was ill-prepared to represent defendant at trial. Defendant argues appellate counsel was ineffective because he failed to appeal the sentence imposed and failed to request reconstruction of the sentencing hearing transcript. Finally, defendant contends Judge Santiago should have conducted a plenary hearing.

Pursuant to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, every criminal defendant is guaranteed assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 685, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 2063, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674, 692 (1984). Whether "retained or appointed," such counsel must "ensure that the trial is fair"; therefore, "'the right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel.'" Strickland, supra, 466 U.S. at 685-86, 104 S. Ct. at 2062-63, 80 L. Ed. 2d at 692 (quoting McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 n.14, 90 S. Ct. 1441, 1449 n.14, 25 L. Ed. 2d 763, 773 n.14 (1970)). The New Jersey Constitution extends the same right to counsel. N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 10.

In order to establish ineffective assistance of counsel a defendant must prove that 1) counsel's performance was deficient, that is, it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and 2) counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense, that is, there is a reasonable probability that counsel's errors altered the outcome. Strickland, supra, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S. Ct. at 2064, 80 L. Ed. 2d at 693; State v. Allah, 170 N.J. 269, 283 (2002). With respect to the second prong, the defendant must do more than "show that the error or errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the trial"; rather, the error "must be so serious as to undermine [the reviewing court's] confidence in the jury's verdict." State v. Sheika, 337 N.J. Super. 228, 242 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 169 N.J. 609 (2001). There is a strong presumption that 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.

The Court has also provided guidance regarding when an evidentiary hearing should be conducted. Justice Stein stated:

[T]he PCR court should ascertain whether the defendant would be entitled to post-conviction relief if the facts were viewed "in the light most favorable to defendant." If that inquiry is answered affirmatively, then the defendant generally is entitled to an evidentiary hearing in order to prove the allegations. We observe, however, that there is a pragmatic dimension to the PCR court's determination. If the court perceives that holding an evidentiary hearing will not aid the court's analysis of whether the defendant is entitled to post-conviction relief, or that the defendant's allegations are too vague, conclusory, or speculative to warrant an evidentiary hearing, then an evidentiary hearing need not be granted. [State v. Marshall, 148 N.J. 89, 158 (internal quotations and citations omitted), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 850, 118 S. Ct. 140, 139 L. Ed. 2d 88 (1997).]

Having thoroughly reviewed this record, we are satisfied that defendant's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are without merit. Defendant has failed to demonstrate that counsel performed at a deficient level or that any error committed or allowed by trial, PCR or appellate counsel produced an unjust result.

Here, the primary focus of this appeal is the extended term imposed on defendant. He argues that the State failed to provide notice to him, as required by statute, of its intention to seek such a term. Defendant does not argue that he is not eligible to be sentenced to an extended term.

Due to the absence of a transcript of the sentencing hearing,*fn1 we cannot know with certainty whether the trial judge resorted to a mandatory or discretionary extended term. We do know that defendant qualified for the imposition of either type of extended term. Moreover, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-3a provides that the State must apply to the court if it seeks imposition of an extended term as a persistent offender. We need not remand for reconstruction of the sentencing record because the State provided to Judge Santiago a copy of its application for an extended term. Therefore, we are satisfied that defendant received the notice to which he was entitled at the time of sentencing. For the same reason, there is no need for an evidentiary hearing.

Affirmed.


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