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Gonzalez v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 7, 2018

LUIS GONZALEZ, Petitioner,
v.
STEVEN JOHNSON, et al., Respondents.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Petitioner, Luis Gonzalez, is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner was convicted in 2006 by a jury of first-degree carjacking. He is currently serving a forty-two-and-one-half years sentence with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility pursuant to New Jersey's No Early Release Act (“NERA”). N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:43-7.2. Petitioner raises several claims in his habeas petition. For the reasons set forth below, the habeas petition will be denied.

         II. FACTS

         On December 22, 2004, Petitioner was attending a program in Egg Harbor Township as a condition of his then-parole.[1] (See Dkt. No. 10-13 at 2.) Petitioner fled from the program, however, upon learning that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. (See id.)

         Around the same time, Gregory Pieri arrived at a Wawa convenience store also located in the Egg Harbor Township area. (See id.) Mr. Pieri parked his vehicle to go inside the store and left his vehicle's engine running. (See id.) Upon returning to his vehicle, Mr. Pieri continued to leave the vehicle's engine running as he entered the backseat to wrap Christmas presents while he ate his lunch. (See id.) As Mr. Pieri was wrapping gifts, the front driver's side door of his vehicle opened suddenly, and Petitioner entered the driver's seat, putting the car into gear and driving away from the Wawa. (See id.) Mr. Pieri testified at trial that Petitioner instructed him to, “be quiet, not say anything and he wouldn't shoot me.” (Id.) Mr. Pieri also testified that Petitioner then “motioned with his right hand down towards his pocket.” (Id.) Mr. Pieri stated that as Petitioner drove the vehicle out of the Wawa parking lot, Mr. Pieri was in “shock or disbelief.” (Id.)

         Mr. Pieri soon removed his cell phone from his pocket and told Petitioner that he was going to dial 9-1-1. (See Id. at 3.) Petitioner responded that if Mr. Pieri gave him the cell phone, Petitioner would let him out of the vehicle. (See id.) Mr. Pieri refused to hand over his phone. (See id.) Petitioner, however, still decided to pull over to the side of the road and permitted Mr. Pieri to exit. (See id.)

         Once outside of the vehicle, Mr. Pieri dialed 9-1-1 and provided a description of Petitioner and the events that had occurred to the dispatcher. (See id.) Police subsequently located and pursued Mr. Pieri's stolen vehicle on the Atlantic City Expressway. (See id.) At trial, police officers testified that the stolen vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed and was being driven erratically, swerving in and out of traffic lanes. (See id.) Out of concern for safety, the pursuit of the stolen vehicle was terminated by police. (See id.) Later that same day, however, the vehicle was located in Camden where it was being driven by Luis Torres. (See id.) Mr. Torres testified at trial that he had “rented” the vehicle from Petitioner for twenty dollars. (See id.) Petitioner was located the following day in Camden and arrested. (See id.)

         Petitioner was charged and subsequently indicted on one count of carjacking, first degree, contrary to N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:15-2a(2). (See id.) On January 12, 2006, at a pre-trial conference before the Honorable Michael R. Connor, J.S.C., Petitioner signed a pre-trial memorandum indicating that he would decline the State's offer of sixteen years in prison subject to NERA in exchange for a guilty plea, and that Petitioner wanted to proceed to trial. (See Dkt. No. 10-1 at 2-5.) Over six months later, on September 11, 2006, a hearing was held before the Honorable James E. Isman, J.S.C., to update the court regarding a new plea offer that the State had extended to Petitioner. (See Dkt. No. 10-2 at 3). The State offered Petitioner ten years in prison subject to NERA in exchange for Petitioner's guilty plea to second degree robbery. (See id.) Petitioner provided a counteroffer to the State, offering to plead guilty to second degree robbery in exchange for a sentence recommendation of five years in prison subject to NERA. (See id.) In rejecting Petitioner's counteroffer, the State placed on the record that Petitioner's exposure at trial for first degree carjacking was ten to thirty years in prison, and that, if convicted, the State would be moving for an extended term. (See Id. at 4-5.) The State contended that given the lengthy sentence Petitioner was facing, the State would not consider any sentence less than ten years. (See Id. at 4.) The trial court then reiterated Petitioner's sentence exposure directly to Petitioner stating, “And Mr. Gonzalez, you would be facing up to a life sentence, obviously, if you are convicted, as an extended term.” (Id. at 5.)

         One month later, following a three-day jury trial, Petitioner was found guilty of the sole count of the indictment. (See Dkt. No. 10-13 at 3.) At his sentencing, the State moved for an extended term, which Judge Isman granted. (See id.) Petitioner was sentenced to forty-five years in prison with a period of parole ineligibility of thirty-eight years and three months, pursuant to NERA.[2] (See id.)

         III. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Following his conviction, Petitioner filed a notice of appeal with the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division on June 20, 2007. On May 6, 2009, in an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's conviction but remanded the matter back to the trial court for resentencing. (See Dkt. No. 10-13 at 16.) The Appellate Division held that resentencing was required because, “the trial judge misapprehended the proper sentencing range, unduly emphasized aggravating factor nine, and failed to consider the minimal severity of the crime.” (Id. at 15.) Petitioner appealed the Appellate Division's decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but on July 20, 2009, the Supreme Court denied certification. (See Dkt. No. 10-14 at 1.)

         On June 12, 2009, the Judge Isman presided over Petitioner's resentencing. (See Dkt. No. 10-8 at 1.) Judge Isman sentenced Petitioner to forty-two-and-one-half years in prison, with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility, pursuant to NERA. (See Id. at 22.) Petitioner again appealed his sentence, but on October 13, 2010, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that while the new sentence was “severe”, it was not a mistaken exercise of the resentencing court's discretion. (See Dkt. No. 10-15 at 5.) Petitioner appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but on July 22, 2011, his petition for certification was denied. (See Dkt. No. 10-16 at 1.)

         On September 7, 2011, Petitioner submitted a verified petition for Post-Conviction Relief (“PCR”). (See Dkt. No. 10-17 at 1.) On July 26, 2013, a hearing on the petition was held before the Honorable Kyran Connor, J.S.C. (See Dkt. No. 10-9.) Following oral argument, Judge Connor denied the petition, issuing a decision from the bench. (See Id. at 42; Dkt. No. 10-23 at 1.) On November 13, 2013, Petitioner filed a notice of appeal to the Appellate Division from the denial of his PCR. (See Dkt. No. 10-24 at 1.) On April 30, 2015, the Appellate Division issued an opinion affirming the PCR court's decision for substantially the same reasons and denying Petitioner's appeal. (See Dkt. No. 10-26 at 3.) Petitioner subsequently filed a petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but that petition was denied on July 20, 2015. (See Dkt. No. 10-27 at 1.)

         In October 2015, Petitioner filed the instant habeas action. Respondent filed an answer in opposition, and Petitioner subsequently filed a reply brief in support.

         IV. HABEAS CORPUS LEGAL STANDARD

         An application for writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under judgment of a state court can only be granted for violations of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. See Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 119 (1982); see also Mason v. Myers, 208 F.3d 414, 415 n.1 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254). Petitioner filed this petition for writ of habeas corpus after April 24, 1996, thus, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996), applies. See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 326 (1997). Under AEDPA, federal habeas corpus relief is not available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings unless the state court's 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 state court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         As a threshold matter, a court must “first decide what constitutes ‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.'” Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71 (2003) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)). “‘[C]learly established federal law' under § 2254(d)(1) is the governing legal principle set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision.” Id. (citations omitted). A federal habeas court making an unreasonable application inquiry should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was “objectively unreasonable.” See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 409 (2000). Thus, “a federal court may not issue a writ simply because the court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.” Id. at 411. “[Federal courts] may not characterize [] state-court factual determinations as unreasonable ‘merely because [they] would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.' [. . .] If ‘[r]easonable minds reviewing the record might disagree' about the finding in question, ‘on habeas review that does not suffice to supersede the trial court's … determination.'” Brumfeld v. Cain, 135 S.Ct. 2269, 2277 (2015) (alterations in original) (quoting Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010)).

         The AEDPA standard under § 2254(d) is a “difficult” test to meet and is a “highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). The petitioner carries the burden of proof and with respect to review under § 2254(d)(1), that review “is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Id.

         In applying AEDPA's standards, the relevant state court decision that is appropriate for federal habeas corpus review is the last reasoned state court decision. See Bond v. Beard, 539 F.3d 256, 289-90 (3d Cir. 2008). Furthermore, “[w]here there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground.” Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991); see also Dennis Sec'y Dep't of Corr., 834 F.3d 263, 353 n.10 (3d Cir. 2016) (Jordan, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) (noting that while Ylst predates the passage of AEDPA, the Ylst presumption that any subsequent unexplained orders upholding the judgment will be presumed to rest upon the same ground is still valid). Additionally, AEDPA deference is not excused when state courts issue summary rulings on claims as “[w]hen a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99 (2011) (citing Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 265 (1989)).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. Lesser-Included Offense

         In Petitioner's Ground One, he argues that the trial court's omission of the lesser-included offense of theft from the jury instruction was clearly capable of producing an unjust result. This claim appears to rest on matters of state law. An allegedly incorrect jury instruction under state law is not a basis for federal habeas relief. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 71-72 (1991) (alteration in original). However, to the extent that Petitioner's argument could be construed as a federal claim, a habeas court must consider, “whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process [. . .] not merely whether the ‘instruction is undesirable, erroneous, or even universally condemned.'” Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154 (1977) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 146-47 (1973)). A state trial court's refusal to give a requested jury instruction does not, by itself, create a federal habeas claim. Rather, a petitioner must demonstrate that the instructional error “had substantial and injurious effect or influence ...


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