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Bacon-Vaughters v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 27, 2019

KENNETH BACON-VAUGHTERS, Petitioner,
v.
STEVEN JOHNSON et al., Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          FREDA L. WOLFSON U.S. CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Petitioner pro se, Kenneth Bacon-Vaughters (“Petitioner”), a state prisoner presently incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, in Trenton, New Jersey, seeks to bring a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (See ECF No. 1.) In conjunction with his Petition, Petitioner filed a motion “for leave to file a substantially equivalent petition for writ of habeas corpus” and a motion for a protective stay of the proceeding. (ECF Nos. 2 & 3.) I construed the former motion as simply requesting the Court to accept a petition completed on the wrong district's habeas form and, having interpreted it as such, granted the motion. (ECF No. 4.) I denied Petitioner's stay motion, however, as the Petition did not include any claims that appeared to be unexhausted. (Id.) In the interests of justice, I noted that Petitioner's stay motion implied that his habeas Petition might not contain all of Petitioner's potential claims and, accordingly, I permitted Petitioner an opportunity to withdraw his Petition and submit one all-inclusive habeas petition and, if applicable, another motion for a protective stay. (See id.)

         In response, Petitioner filed another motion “for leave to file a substantially equivalent petition, ” which included a proposed Amended Petition. (ECF Nos. 6 & 6-1.) He simultaneously filed another motion for a protective stay. (ECF No. 5.) The Amended Petition adds a claim, in Ground Six, that the trial court failed to properly consider Petitioner's youthfulness when imposing a sentence, citing Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and State v. Zuber, 152 A.3d 197 (N.J. 2017).[1] (ECF No. 6-1 at 12-13.) Petitioner indicates that this argument was not raised on direct appeal or during his initial PCR proceeding because Miller and Zuber were “decided after [his] conviction and sentence.” (Id.) Petitioner argues that this habeas proceeding should be stayed because he filed a motion to correct his sentence in June 2018, which remains pending before the state courts.[2] (See ECF No. 5.) As respondents have not yet been served, there is no opposition to either of Petitioner's motions.

         Once again, it is unclear as to what Petitioner seeks in his instant motion “for leave to file a substantially equivalent petition.” Indeed, as the Court previously granted Petitioner leave to withdraw his original petition and submit an amended, all-inclusive § 2254 petition, his proposed Amended Petition, (ECF No. 6-1), will be accepted as the operative pleading in this matter. Thus, to the extent this is the relief Petitioner seeks, (ECF No. 6), it is granted.

         There is no basis, however, to grant Petitioner's motion for a protective stay. In Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269 (2005), the Supreme Court found that a court presented with a mixed habeas petition-that is, a petition containing both exhausted and unexhausted claims-may grant a protective stay to permit the petitioner to exhaust the unexhausted claims without letting the limitations period expire on the exhausted claims assuming three elements are satisfied. See Id. at 275-78. Those three elements are (1) whether good cause exists for the petitioner's failure to exhaust all claims in state court, (2) whether the unexhausted claims are potentially meritorious, and (3) whether the petitioner is employing the litigation simply as means of delay. See Id. at 277; Heleva v. Brooks, 581 F.3d 187, 192 (3d Cir. 2009).

         I examine first whether Petitioner can show good cause for his failure to exhaust. As Zuber was not decided until January 2017, he may be able to show good cause for his failure to exhaust a claim arising under that case. On the other hand, Petitioner cannot show good cause for his failure to exhaust any claim arising under Miller, which was decided in June 2012-well over a year before Petitioner filed his first PCR petition in October 2013. (See ECF No. 6-1 at 17.)

         Turning to the potential merit of Petitioner's unexhausted claims requires the Court to determine the nature of those claims. Petitioner argues that the trial court should have considered his youthful age at the time of the offense as a mitigating factor in imposing his sentence. (ECF No. 6-1 at 12.) In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court held “that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, ” further explaining that a sentencing court must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 479-80. The Supreme Court of New Jersey subsequently held, in Zuber, that New Jersey courts must consider the same concerns before imposing “sentences that are the practical equivalent of life without parole” or “consecutive terms that would result in a lengthy over all term of imprisonment for a juvenile.” Zuber, 152 A.3d at 201-02.

         Given the manner in which Petitioner has raised the issue, I construe Ground Six of the Amended Petition as primarily asserting a claim under Zuber. As Zuber is a matter of state, not federal, law, however, it creates no basis for granting federal habeas relief. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67 (1991) (“We have stated many times that federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). To the extent that Ground Six could alternatively be construed as seeking relief under Miller, it still would not state a potentially meritorious claim for habeas relief. The holding of Miller applies to mandatory sentences of “life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Miller, 567 U.S. at 479. But the state court sentenced Petitioner to 40 years in prison with an 85% parole disqualifier, not life without parole. (See ECF No. 6-1 ¶ 3.) Furthermore, the Miller holding applies only to juvenile offenders. See Jackson v. Superintendent Mahanoy SCI, No. 18-1311, 2018 WL 3996627, at *1 (3d Cir. May 25, 2018); Graham v. Superintendent Somerset SCI, No. 17-3660, 2018 WL 2735398, at *1 (3d Cir. Apr. 17, 2018). Thus, it does not apply to Petitioner, who indicates that he was 18 years old at the time of the crime. (See ECF No. 6-1 at 12.) See also State v. Bacon-Vaughters, No. A-0583-11T3, 2013 WL 656248, at *3 ( N.J.Super. Ct., App. Div., Feb. 25, 2013). Accordingly, I do not find that Petitioner can raise a meritorious federal claim under Miller, and stay would not be appropriate on this basis.

         Lastly, there is no indication that Petitioner is attempting to use these processes as a method of delay, and I perceive no way in which delay would presently help him. Nonetheless, as the claim Petitioner is seeking to exhaust in state court forms no basis for federal habeas relief, no reason exists to grant a protective stay. The denial of a stay results in no prejudice to Petitioner, because his unexhausted habeas claim is facially meritless. Accordingly, the motion for a protective stay is denied.

         Furthermore, for the reasons already explained herein, Petitioner's claim in Ground Six is dismissed upon screening under Rule 4 of the Rules Governing § 2254 Cases. I find no basis, however, to dismiss any other portion of the Petition under Rule 4 without an answer and the record. Thus, respondents shall be served and I direct them to file an answer or a motion to dismiss on timeliness grounds within 45 days.

         Accordingly, IT IS, on this 27th day of June 2019, ORDERED that Petitioner's motion for leave to file a substantially equivalent petition for a writ of habeas corpus, (ECF No. 6), to the extent it simply asks the Court to accept the proposed Amended Petition despite superficial defects, is GRANTED; and it is further

         ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court shall docket the proposed Amended Petition, (ECF No. 6-1), as the operative pleading in this case; and it is further

         ORDERED that Petitioner's motion for a protective stay this proceeding, (ECF No. 5), is DENIED; and it is further

         ORDERED that Petitioner's claim for relief in Ground Six of his Amended Petition (ECF No. 6-1) is dismissed upon screening under Rule 4 of the Rules ...


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