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Rhodes v. The Attorney General of State of New Jersey

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 18, 2018

ROBERT RHODES, Petitioner,
v.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Respondents.

          OPINION

          Hon. Susan D. Wigenton, United States District Judge

         Presently before the Court is the amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus of Robert Rhodes (“Petitioner”) brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging Petitioner's state court conviction (ECF No. 7). The State filed a response to the petition (ECF No. 12), to which Petitioner has replied. (ECF No. 15). For the following reasons, this Court will deny the petition and deny Petitioner a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Following his arrest in May 2015, Petitioner Robert Rhodes was indicted on multiple state drug charges including knowingly maintaining or operating a heroin production facility in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:35-4. (Document 2 attached to ECF No. 12 at 24-27). Because Petitioner had an extensive criminal history involving multiple prior felonies and because a firearm was recovered in a search of Petitioner's home, Petitioner was also charged by way of a second indictment with being a felon in possession of a firearm (referred to in the record as a “certain persons” offense) in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-7. (Id. at 28-29). On November 9, 2015, Petitioner pled guilty to both the maintaining charge and the certain persons offense in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Union County. (Document 6 attached to ECF No. 12). Pursuant to the plea agreement offered by the state, Petitioner was required to plead to the maintaining a heroin production facility charge, for which he would receive a recommended sentence of eight years with a four year parole disqualifier, and to the certain persons offense, for which he would receive a five year sentence with a five year parole disqualifier, while the remaining drug charges would be dismissed. (Id. at 6-7). In the plea agreement, the State also indicated its intent to recommend that these two sentences be served consecutively. (Id.).

         At his plea hearing, however, Petitioner expressed dissatisfaction with his attorney because he believed that the State had miscalculated the appropriate sentence for his heroin facility charge under the New Jersey Attorney General's Brimage guidelines[1] and because he believed that it amounted to either double counting or a double jeopardy issue for him to both have his heroin facility charge enhanced for possessing a weapon while also receiving a separate sentence for the certain persons offense. (Id. at 4-15). Essentially, Petitioner believed that, pursuant to the guidelines, his total sentence should have been an eight year term with a four year parole disqualifier, notwithstanding the additional certain persons offense. (Id.). In an extensive colloquy, the plea judge explained to Petitioner that he would be free at sentencing to argue that his certain persons offense should run concurrent to his heroin facility charge, but that he did not have the ability to pick and choose which parts of the state's plea deal he would accept - Petitioner could either plead guilty to both charges and argue at sentencing that the two sentences should run concurrently, or he could refuse the deal and proceed to trial. (Id. at 15-31). Petitioner ultimately accepted the judge's explanation, and chose to plead guilty to both charges. (Id. at 32-54). As part of that plea, Petitioner stated that he was now satisfied with his attorney, and that he understood the rights that he was waiving by pleading guilty, though he still felt the recommended sentence was “excessive.” (Id. at 36-41). As part of the factual basis for his plea, Petitioner admitted that he had knowingly operated a heroin production facility in North Plainfield, and that police had covered a considerable amount of heroin and paraphernalia from that facility. (Id. at 42-45). Petitioner also admitted that he knowingly possessed a handgun and that he had previously been convicted of a drug-related felony. (Id. at 50-53).

         Following this guilty plea, Petitioner appeared for sentencing on January 22, 2016. (Document 7 attached to ECF No. 12). At sentencing, Petitioner again argued that it would amount to double counting or something approaching a double jeopardy violation for Petitioner to receive a consecutive sentence for the certain persons offense after his heroin facility recommended sentence had already been adjusted for the use of a firearm. (Id. at 4-6). After considering these arguments, the trial court ultimately concluded that Petitioner's sentences on the two offenses should run concurrently with one another, and thus sentenced Petitioner to an eight year sentence with a four year parole disqualifier on the heroin facility charge and a concurrent five year sentence with a five year parole disqualifier on the certain persons offense, ultimately resulting in a sentence of eight years with a five year parole disqualifier. (Id. at 11-20).

         Petitioner thereafter appealed his sentence, with his appeal being heard on an excessive sentence calendar by the Superior Court of New Jersey - Appellate Division. (Document 8 attached to ECF No. 12). On appeal, Petitioner argued that, under the Brimage guidelines, he should only have received the eight year sentence with a four year parole disqualifier and that the “certain persons [offense] should not have been part of the plea offer” and that he thus should not have received the five year parole disqualifier from the certain persons offense. (Id. at 2-3). The State in turn argued that, under the Brimage guidelines, Petitioner could have been subjected to a twelve year sentence on the heroin facility charge consecutive to the five year certain persons offense, and that Petitioner's concurrent sentence was thus an “excellent deal” for Petitioner, and that neither the plea offer nor sentence ultimately violated his rights. (Id. at 4). On September 21, 2016, the Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's sentence, finding that the sentencing judge “correctly applied the sentencing guidelines” and did not abuse its discretion in sentencing Petitioner. (Document 3 attached to No. 12).

         Petitioner thereafter filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court. (ECF No. 7 at 20-22). In his petition for certification, Petitioner once again argued that the Brimage guidelines had been improperly applied, and that he should have received a total sentence of eight years with a four year period of parole ineligibility, rather than the eight year sentence with a five year ineligibility period Petitioner received. (Id.). The New Jersey Supreme Court denied Petitioner's petition for certification on February 7, 2017. (Document 5 attached to ECF No. 12).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), the district court “shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus [o]n behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” A habeas petitioner has the burden of establishing his entitlement to relief for each claim presented in his petition based upon the record that was before the state court. See Eley v. Erickson, 712 F.3d 837, 846 (3d Cir. 2013); see also Parker v. Matthews, 567 U.S. 37, 40-41 (2012). Under the statute, as amended by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2244 (“AEDPA”), district courts are required to give great deference to the determinations of the state trial and appellate courts. See Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 772-73 (2010).

         Where a claim has been adjudicated on the merits by the state courts, the district court shall not grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus unless the state court 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 on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented ...

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