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Grohs v. Administrator of Special Treatment Unit

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 28, 2019

STEVEN GROHS, Petitioner,

          Steven Grohs, Pro Se, Mark D. McNally, Deputy Attorney General, Office of the New Jersey Attorney General, New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety, Division of Law, Health & Human Services Section, Attorney for Respondents.




         Steven Grohs (“Grohs”) has submitted a petition (“Petition”) for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF 1.) Grohs completed his term of imprisonment for the crime of attempted luring and enticing a child, and he has been civilly committed since 2011 as a sexually violent predator. The Administrator of the Special Treatment Unit and the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey (collectively, “Respondents”) oppose the Petition. (Answer, ECF 19.)

         In this Petition, Petitioner challenges his prior criminal conviction, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel in pleading guilty without understanding the risk of a subsequent civil commitment. The principal issues to be determined are: (1) whether Petitioner, challenging his 2009 criminal conviction, for which imprisonment ended in 2011, satisfies the “in custody” requirement of § 2254 by his present civil commitment; and (2) whether, assuming the existence of § 2254 jurisdiction, the state court's rejection of Petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, the governing federal precedent in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and its progeny.

         For the reasons stated herein, the Petition shall be denied and no certificate of appealability shall issue.


         In September 2008, Petitioner was indicted in Camden County, New Jersey, on fifteen counts of luring a child, criminal sexual contact, child welfare endangerment, and related offenses arising from his contact with a 14-year-old boy when Grohs was 42. (ECF 19-3.)

         On December 15, 2008, Petitioner entered a guilty plea to a charge of Attempted Luring or Enticing a Child in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:13-6. (ECF 19-4.) Represented by counsel, Petitioner executed a plea form, setting forth the conditions of his guilty plea (id. at 1-4), as well as a supplemental plea form concerning the civil commitment implications of his guilty plea to sexual offense charges (“Supplemental Form”). (Id. at 5-8.)

         The Supplemental Form's “Civil Commitment” section provided:

Do you understand that if you are convicted of a sexually violent offense, such as aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, kidnapping under 2C:13-1(c)(2)(b), criminal sexual contact, felony murder if the underlying crime is sexual assault, an attempt to commit any of these offense, or any offense for which the court makes a specific finding on the record that, based on the circumstances of the case, the offense should be considered a sexually violent offense, you may upon completion of your term of incarceration, be civilly committed to another facility if the court finds, after a hearing, that you are in need of involuntary civil commitment?

(Id. at 8 (“Civil Commitment Provision”).) Petitioner circled the answer “YES” directly next to this section. (Id.) He signed and dated the bottom of this form. (Id.)

         On December 15, 2008, the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey (“Law Division”) held Petitioner's plea hearing. (ECF 19-5.) At the hearing's commencement, an Assistant Camden County prosecutor, Christine Shah, noted on the record that she and Petitioner had executed the final page of the plea form and that he had circled the “Yes, ” to the Civil Commitment Provision. (Id. at 3.) The trial judge, the Honorable Lee A. Solomon, J.S.C., now Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, discussed the plea with Petitioner, affording him the opportunity to ask questions of counsel and the court. (Id. at 4.) Petitioner's responses to Judge Solomon's questions on the record demonstrated that: Petitioner spoke to his counsel, Leslie Jackson, Esquire, before accepting the plea (id. at 5); Petitioner had received the opportunity to ask her all of his questions (id.); Ms. Jackson answered all of Petitioner's questions (id.); Petitioner had no further questions for Ms. Jackson, Ms. Shah, or Judge Solomon (id.); and Petitioner was satisfied with Ms. Jackson's representation. (Id. at 6.)

         Judge Solomon established on the record that Petitioner understood the significance of his guilty plea and that he accepted the factual basis for his plea. (Id. at 6-7) (asking Petitioner's awareness of, inter alia, the fact he would give up certain federal and state constitutional rights by virtue of his guilty plea). Judge Solomon further questioned Petitioner as follows:

COURT: You're pleading guilty here today, are you doing so of your own free will?
GROHS: Yes, Your Honor.
COURT: Nobody threatened you, coerced you or forced you in any way to plead guilty?
GROHS: No, sir.
COURT: And once again, you've had a chance to speak to Ms. Jackson?
GROHS: Yes, sir.
COURT: And you're satisfied with the way she's represented you in this matter?
GROHS: Absolutely, Your Honor.

(Id. at 8.)

         In response to Judge Solomon's questions, Petitioner also expressly testified that he reviewed the plea form with Ms. Jackson and that he understood all of its contents. (Id.)

         Judge Solomon then discussed the civil commitment implications of Petitioner's guilty plea. Specifically, Judge Solomon noted that a petition for civil commitment could be filed in the future, and both Petitioner and Ms. Jackson acknowledged this fact. (Id. at 8-9.)

         On February 20, 2009, and pursuant to his guilty plea, Petitioner was convicted of Attempted Luring or Enticing a Child. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, with 728 days of jail credit. (ECF 19-6; ECF 19-7.) Accordingly, Petitioner's incarceration for this criminal conviction would run until February 22, 2012.

         On February 22, 2011, the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey petitioned the Law Division to involuntarily civilly commit Petitioner as a sexually violent predator under New Jersey's Sexually Violent Predator Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 30:4-27.24 to -.38 (“SVPA”). (ECF 19-8.)

         On February 24, 2011, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, involuntarily civilly committed Petitioner to the Special Treatment Unit (“STU”) in Avenel, New Jersey. (ECF 19-9.) The Honorable Richard J. Geiger civilly committed Petitioner pursuant to N.J. Stat. Ann. § 30:4-27.24, et seq., which provides, in pertinent part:

Certain individuals who commit sex offenses suffer from mental abnormalities or personality disorders which make them likely to engage in repeat acts of predatory sexual violence if not treated for their mental conditions ... [Therefore, there is a] need for commitment of those sexually violent predators who pose a danger to others should they be returned to society ... If the court finds that there is probable cause to believe that the person is a sexually violent predator in need of involuntary commitment, it shall issue an order setting a date for a final hearing and authorizing temporary commitment to a secure facility designated for the custody, care and treatment of sexually violent predators pending the final hearing.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 30:4-27.25, § 30:4-27.28. Petitioner's civil commitment[1] in 2011 to the STU followed expiration of Petitioner's criminal incarceration imposed in 2009.

         On June 14, 2011, Grohs filed a petition for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) pertaining to his 2009 criminal guilty plea and sentence. (ECF 19-10.) On August 25, 2011, Petitioner was assigned PCR counsel to represent him. (ECF 19-11.) On January 25, 2012, Petitioner's PCR counsel filed his brief in support of PCR, asserting that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance for not notifying Petitioner of the civil commitment ramifications of his guilty plea. (ECF 19-12.)

         On July 26, 2013, following oral argument and supplemental briefing, the trial court denied PCR in an oral decision. (ECF 19-18.) In her findings of fact, the Honorable Michele M. Fox, J.S.C. noted that: Petitioner had circled “yes” next to the Civil Commitment Provision; he testified under oath that he had reviewed the plea form in its entirety and understood it; and the prosecutor had made special note of civil commitment during his plea hearing. (Id. at 15-16.) Finding that Petitioner had failed to establish a prima facie case of ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) in accordance with Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), Judge Fox determined that Petitioner was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing as to his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. (Id. at 17-18.)

         On November 26, 2013, Petitioner directly appealed the Law Division's July 26, 2013 Order. (ECF 19-20.) Petitioner's April 21, 2014 appellate brief argued that the trial court had established only that he understood the plea form generally and not necessarily the civil commitment consequences of his plea. (ECF 19-21 at 14-15.)

         On January 28, 2015, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey (“Appellate Division”) affirmed the Superior Court's denial of Petitioner's PCR application. (ECF 19-23.)

         On February 19, 2015, Petitioner sought certification of the Appellate Division's January 28, 2015 ruling. (ECF 19-24, ECF 19-25, ECF 19-26.) On March 19, 2015, Petitioner withdrew that petition for certification (ECF 19-28, ECF 19-29), and instead filed an April 1, 2015 motion for reconsideration with the Appellate Division. (ECF 19-30.)

         On May 6, 2015, the Appellate Division denied Petitioner's motion for reconsideration. (ECF 19-31.)

         On May 13, 2015, Petitioner again filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court as to the Appellate Division's January 28, 2015 decision. (ECF 19-32, ECF 19-33.) On October 9, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court ...

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