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Pittman v. State

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 11, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al. Respondents.




         Petitioner, Elijah Pittman, has submitted a pro se amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Am. Pet., ECF No. 5.) For the reasons stated herein, the amended petition shall be denied and no certificate of appealability shall issue.


         The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, summarized the facts underlying Petitioner's conviction as follows:[1]

According to the State's proofs, at around 7:30 p.m. on August 22, 2006, while still daylight with clear weather, Union Township Police Officer Michael Wittevrongel was monitoring eastbound Route 22 traffic in a marked patrol car parked about ten feet away in a lot perpendicular to the roadway. The officer noticed a Chrysler Fifth Avenue approaching in the left lane with no front license plate, but a New Jersey license plate on the back. Wittevrongel focused solely on this car as it passed by at about forty to forty-five miles per hour, paying particular attention because its driver's side door lock was damaged, indicating that it could have been stolen. At the same time, Wittevrongel observed a male driver and a female passenger.
Wittevrongel ran the number on the rear license plate and found that it was not registered to that vehicle or any other. As a result, he radioed two other officers in the area, David Roman and Walter Stinner, for assistance. Wittevrongel then pulled out onto Route 22 in pursuit, losing sight of the Chrysler for no more than thirty seconds. He eventually caught up to the Chrysler near the Lowes Shopping Center on Route 22, where he saw his fellow officers pull out from the Lowes' parking lot, in their police cruiser, activate their lights and sirens, and signal for [Petitioner] to stop. Wittevrongel did the same, taking over as the primary unit in pursuit, only losing sight of the vehicle for an instant just before it ultimately crashed a few minutes later. While in pursuit, Officer Stinner also observed that the driver was male and the passenger, female.
With the police vehicles following, the Chrysler accelerated to about seventy miles per hour in the forty-five mile per hour speed zone, “weaving in and out of traffic, ” driving erratically, and suddenly “pull[ing] from the left lane, clear across the right lane of traffic, and right off the [exit] ramp.” By then, the officers had been pursuing the vehicle for approximately 3.3 miles. When Wittevrongel reached the top of the exit ramp, he saw that the Chrysler -- which he lost sight of for only “a fraction of a second” when it shot down the ramp -- had rear-ended another vehicle, a Saturn, at a stop sign at the bottom of the ramp. The impact forced the Saturn all the way across the street and into a parking lot where it collided with a tractor trailer.
The Chrysler had sustained heavy front-end damage and was still smoking and rolling the wrong way down a one-way street as the passenger remained inside while the driver attempted to exit, despite the fact that his door would not open. Wittevrongel, after quickly checking that the driver of the Saturn was all right, used his police cruiser to block the Chrysler from moving any further. Inside that vehicle was [Petitioner], in the driver's seat, along with a passenger, [Petitioner's] cousin Nicole Pittman. [Petitioner], who was the same person Wittevrongel saw in the driver's seat when he first observed the vehicle on Route 22, [2] was then placed under arrest. Carol McBride, the driver of the Saturn vehicle, sustained injuries to her neck, back, and shoulders that left her, more than a year later, with continuing pain and still unable to drive.

State v. Pittman, No. A-4846-08T4, 2010 WL 2090047, at *1 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. May 26, 2010) (footnote in original).

         Petitioner's trial proceedings were conducted before the Honorable Joseph P. Donohue, J.S.C., on September 25 and 26, 2007. (See Sept. 25 and 26, 2007 Trial Trs., ECF Nos. 13-20 and 13-21.) The only individuals who testified at trial were Ms. McBride and Officers Wittevrongel and Stinner; all three testified as State's witnesses. (See Sept. 26, 2007 Trial Tr., ECF No. 13-21.)

         On September 26, 2007, the jury found Petitioner guilty of: (i) second-degree eluding, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-2b; and (ii) second-degree aggravated assault, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:12-1b(6). Pittman, 2010 WL 2090047, at *1. On July 24, 2008, Judge Donohue sentenced Petitioner “to six years in prison with a two-year period of parole ineligibility [on the eluding conviction and] a consecutive eight-year term with an eighty-five percent parole ineligibility period [on the aggravated assault conviction.]” Id. (See also July 24, 2008 Sentencing Tr., ECF No. 13-22.)

         The Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence on direct appeal on May 26, 2010. Pittman, 2010 WL 2090047, at *1. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification of Petitioner's direct appeal on October 7, 2010. State v. Pittman, 6 A.3d 441 (N.J. 2010) (table).

         On or about November 12, 2010, Petitioner filed an application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) in the Superior Court of New Jersey (hereinafter, the “PCR court”). (See, e.g., Aug. 20, 2012 Statement of Reasons Denying PCR, ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 449.) Judge Donohue was the PCR court judge. (See, e.g., Aug. 20, 2012 Order Denying PCR, ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 448.) Petitioner argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because, among other things, his trial counsel (1) failed to “investigate damage to the [unmarked police vehicle, ‘TAC 3', operated by Officers Roman and Stinner] and [radio] transmission records[;]” (2) did not “consider that there was no plausible factual scenario in which Officer Wittevrongel could have identified [Petitioner;]” and (3) “failed to investigate racial profiling or selective prosecution.” (See, e.g., ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 449.)

         On or about February 13, 2012, Petitioner filed a motion in the PCR court requesting, inter alia, the following additional, post-trial discovery:[3] (1) “[c]opies of all communications between the police vehicles and headquarters (dispatch/transmissions and [mobile data computer (“MDR”) records;]” (ii) “[c]opies of all records related to the damage sustained by [TAC 3], including but not limited to towing and repairs[;]” and (iii) [a]n in camera inspection of the personnel files of the police officers involved in this matter and disclosure to Petitioner of any complaint of racial profiling or selective prosecution.” (See Pet'r's Feb. 13, 2012 Notice of Mot., ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 379-80; accord Pet'r's Mar. 17, 2012 Letter Br., ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 404-06.) Petitioner claimed that this discovery was needed to substantiate his ineffective assistance of counsel claims. (Id.) The PCR court held a hearing on Petitioner's motion for post-trial discovery on April 20, 2012. (Apr. 20, 2012 Discovery Mot. Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 13-24.) The same day, the PCR court issued an order formally denying the request. (ECF No. 13-11 at PageID: 303.)

         Thereafter, on August 10, 2012, the PCR court held a hearing on the merits of Petitioner's PCR application. (Aug. 10, 2012 Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 13-25.) On August 20, 2012, the PCR court entered an order formally denying Petitioner's PCR application. (ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 448.) The PCR court's denial was based on the reasons it placed on the record on August 10, 2012 (see Aug. 10, 2012 Hr'g Tr. 21-28, ECF No. 13-25), and the additional reasons it detailed in the “Statement of Reasons Denying PCR” appended to the PCR court's April 20th order. (ECF No. 13-15 at PageID: 449-52.)

         The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of Petitioner's PCR petition on March 9, 2015. State v. Pittman, No. A-1383-12T4, 2014 WL 8086797, at *1 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Mar. 9, 2015). The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification of Petitioner's PCR appeal on June 19, 2015. State v. Pittman, 116 A.3d 1071 (N.J. 2015) (table). Petitioner initiated this § 2254 action on July 14, 2015. (ECF No. 1.) Petitioner filed his amended petition on August 14, 2015, asserting four grounds for relief. (ECF No. 5.) Respondents submitted their answer on February 29, 2016. (ECF No. 13.) Petitioner filed a reply on March 9, 2016.[4] (ECF No. 15.)


         Section 2254(a) permits a court to entertain only claims alleging that a person is in state custody “in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Petitioner has the burden of establishing each of his claims. See Eley v. Erickson, 712 F.3d 837, 846 (3d Cir. 2013). Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2244 (“AEDPA”), federal courts in habeas corpus cases must give considerable deference to determinations of the state trial and appellate courts. See Renico v. Lett, 599 U.S. 766, 772 (2010).

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) provides as follows:

(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim -
(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 in the State court proceeding.

         Where a state court adjudicated petitioner's federal claim on the merits, [5] a federal court “has no authority to issue the writ of habeas corpus unless the [state c]ourt's decision ‘was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal Law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,' or ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'” Parker v. Matthews, 567 U.S. 37, 40 (2012) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)). The petitioner carries the burden of proof, and review under § 2254(d) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98, 100 (2011).

         “[C]learly established law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court's] decisions, ” as of the time of the relevant state-court decision. White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)). A decision is “contrary to” a Supreme Court holding within § 2254(d)(1) if the state court “contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases” or if it “confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of th[e Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a [different] result.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06. Under the “‘unreasonable application' clause of § 2254(d)(1), a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from th[e Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Id. at 413. With regard to § 2254(d)(1), a federal court must confine its examination to evidence in the record. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 180-81 (2011).

         Where a petitioner seeks habeas relief, pursuant to § 2254(d)(2), on the basis of an erroneous factual determination of the state court, two provisions of AEDPA apply. First, AEDPA provides that “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct [and t]he applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 240 (2005); see also Blankenship v. Hall, 542 F.3d 1253, 1272 (11th Cir. 2008) (state courts' “implicit findings of fact are entitled to deference under AEDPA to the same extent as explicit findings of fact”), cert. denied, 131 S.Ct. 1041 (2011). Second, AEDPA precludes habeas relief unless the adjudication of the claim “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2).

         A federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus under § 2254 unless the petitioner has “exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). In other words, “a petitioner must ‘fairly present' all federal claims to the highest state court before bringing them in federal court.” Leyva v. Williams, 504 F.3d 357, 365 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Stevens v. Delaware Corr. Ctr., 295 F.3d 361, 369 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Whitney v. Horn, 280 F.3d 240, 250 (3d Cir. 2002))); see also Garvey v. Phelps, 840 F.Supp.2d 782, 785 (D. Del. 2012) (“A petitioner satisfies the exhaustion requirement by ‘fairly presenting' the substance of the federal habeas claim to the state's highest court, either on direct appeal or in a post-conviction proceeding, and in a procedural manner permitting the state courts to consider it on the merits.”). “This requirement ensures that state courts have an initial opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of prisoners' federal rights.” Leyva, 504 F.3d at 365 (citing United States v. Bendolph, 409 F.3d 155, 173 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Duckworth v. Serrano, 454 U.S. 1, 3 (1981)).

         To the extent that Petitioner's constitutional claims are unexhausted, this Court can nevertheless deny them on the merits under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2). See Taylor v. Horn, 504 F.3d 416, 427 (3d Cir. 2007) (“because [this court] will deny all of [petitioner's] claims on the merits, [it] need not address exhaustion.”); Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700, 728 (3d Cir. 2005) (“Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2), [this court] may reject claims on the merits even though they were not properly exhausted, and [this court will] take that approach here.”). “Where the state court has not addressed the merits of a claim . . ., then [§ 2254's] deferential standard of review does not apply and [this Court] instead review[s] the claim de novo.” Breakiron v. Horn, 642 F.3d 126, 131 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30, 39 (2009)). This Court “nevertheless must presume that state-court factual findings are correct unless the presumption is rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. (citing Palmer v. Hendricks, 592 F.3d 386, 392 (3d Cir. 2010); 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)); see also Robinson v. Beard, 762 F.3d 316, 324 (3d Cir. 2014), cert. denied sub nom Robinson v. Wetzel, 136 S.Ct. 53 (2015)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Petitioner presents four “grounds” in his amended habeas petition:

Ground One: The discovery will show that the officers racial[ly] profiled me and the judge and prosecutor know that. That's why he den[ied] me the discovery because it will show what really happen[ed]. So that [is] how the [state] courts violat[ed] my constution[al] rights. And I submitted a document to the [state] courts . . . showing that the officer wasn't telling the truth on what time he checked the license plate. He said 7:30pm[;] the paper work I have show[s] 8:38pm.
Ground Two: The dispatch transmission report and towing record and repair record will support my claim of being innocen[t]. I will show that the judge, prosecutor, and the officers in my case cover[ed] up what had happen[ed] in my case and the “MDC” computer show[s] that the officers didn't check the license plate at 7:30pm like he testif[ied] to[;] the “MDC” computer show[s] it was 8:38pm.
Ground Three: If the jury [had known] about the dispatch transmission report and towing records and repair record and the officers not telling the truth about the time they check[ed] the license, the outcome of my trial would have been different.
Ground Four: The dispatch transmission report and towing record and repair record will support my claim of being innocen[t.] I just need the [District Court] to review my case to see how my constitution[al] rights [were] violated.

(Am. Pet., ECF No. 5.)

         Petitioner does not refer to any specific constitutional provisions or cite to any case law in support of the foregoing grounds. There is also significant factual overlap underlying each of these the claims. Based on these considerations, this Court construes Petitioner's habeas claims as follows: first, that Officer Wittevrongel falsely testified that he ran Petitioner's license plate at 7:30pm, as evidenced by discovery already in Petitioner's possession demonstrating that Petitioner's license plate was checked at 8:38pm; second, that the PCR court improperly denied his motion for additional post-trial discovery; third, that if Petitioner obtained that discovery, he would have been able to show that he is actually innocent of the crimes charged, that he was only pulled over as a result of racial profiling, and that the jury would have acquitted him, and; fourth, that the assistant ...

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