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Decarolis v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 29, 2018

PATRICK PHILIP DECAROLIS, Petitioner,
v.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          KENT J. DAWSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This pro se 28 U.S.C. § 2254 first-amended habeas petition filed by Patrick Philip DeCarolis comes before the court for disposition on the merits (ECF No. 17).

         I. Procedural History and Background

         As this court has previously set forth in the order granting respondents' motion to dismiss certain claims, on December 2, 2010, a jury found DeCarolis guilty of count 1: burglary; count 2: forgery; and count 3: attempted theft (exhibit 28 to motion to dismiss, ECF No. 21).[1] On January 4, 2012, following trial but prior to sentencing, DeCarolis moved to dismiss his trial counsel for providing ineffective assistance. Exhs. 40, 41. The state district court appointed new counsel for the limited purpose of reviewing DeCarolis' motion to dismiss his trial counsel. Exh. 43. On February 27, 2012, the district court re-appointed DeCarolis' trial counsel to represent DeCarolis at sentencing. Exh. 45.

         On March 21, 2012, the state district court sentenced DeCarolis, pursuant to Nevada's small habitual criminal statute, to a term of 96 to 240 months for each of the three counts, to run concurrently. Exh. 46, p. 23; see NRS 207.010. Judgment of conviction was filed on April 5, 2012. Exh. 55. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the convictions on February 13, 2013, and remittitur issued on March 11, 2013. Exhs. 82, 83.

         On September 26, 2013, DeCarolis filed a state postconviction habeas corpus petition. Exh. 87. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the petition on July 23, 2014, and remittitur issued on August 20, 2014. Exhs. 118, 119.

         DeCarolis dispatched his federal petition for mailing on August 20, 2014 (ECF No. 11). On or about May 6, 2015, DeCarolis filed his first-amended petition (ECF No. 17).

         Respondents have now answered the remaining grounds (ECF No. 43), and petitioner has replied (ECF No. 44).

         II. Legal Standards

         a. AEDPA Standard of Review

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), provides the legal standards for this court's consideration of the petition in this case:

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.

         The AEDPA “modified a federal habeas court's role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas ‘retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693-694 (2002). This court's ability to grant a writ is limited to cases where “there is no possibility fair-minded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [Supreme Court] precedents.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011). The Supreme Court has emphasized “that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)); see also Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (describing the AEDPA standard as “a difficult to meet and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         A state court decision is contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent, within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254, “if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases” or “if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme Court] and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [the Supreme Court's] precedent.” Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 73 (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000), and citing Bell, 535 U.S. at 694.

         A state court decision is an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent, within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), “if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 74 (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 413). The “unreasonable application” clause requires the state court decision to be more than incorrect or erroneous; the state court's application of clearly established law must be objectively unreasonable. Id. (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 409).

         To the extent that the state court's factual findings are challenged, the “unreasonable determination of fact” clause of § 2254(d)(2) controls on federal habeas review. E.g., Lambert v. Blodgett, 393 F.3d 943, 972 (9th Cir.2004). This clause requires that the federal courts “must be particularly deferential” to state court factual determinations. Id. The governing standard is not satisfied by a showing merely that the state court finding was “clearly erroneous.” 393 F.3d at 973. Rather, AEDPA requires substantially more deference:

.... [I]n concluding that a state-court finding is unsupported by substantial evidence in the state-court record, it is not enough that we would reverse in similar circumstances if this were an appeal from a district court decision. Rather, we must be convinced that an appellate panel, applying the normal standards of appellate review, could not reasonably conclude that the finding is supported by the record.

         Taylor v. Maddox, 366 F.3d 992, 1000 (9th Cir.2004); see also Lambert, 393 F.3d at 972.

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), state court factual findings are presumed to be correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. The petitioner bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he is entitled to habeas relief. Cullen, 563 U.S. at 181.

         b. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         DeCarolis sets forth several claims of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel in violation of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims are governed by the two-part test announced in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In Strickland, the Supreme Court held that a petitioner claiming ineffective assistance of counsel has the burden of demonstrating that (1) the attorney made errors so serious that he or she was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Williams, 529 U.S. at 390-91 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687). To establish ineffectiveness, the defendant must show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Id. To establish prejudice, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. A reasonable probability is “probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. Additionally, any review of the attorney's performance must be “highly deferential” and must adopt counsel's perspective at the time of the challenged conduct, in order to avoid the distorting effects of hindsight. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. It is the petitioner's burden to overcome the presumption that counsel's actions might be considered sound trial strategy. Id.

         Ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland requires a showing of deficient performance of counsel resulting in prejudice, “with performance being measured against an objective standard of reasonableness, . . . under prevailing professional norms.” Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 380 (2005) (internal quotations and citations omitted). When the ineffective assistance of counsel claim is based on a challenge to a guilty plea, the Strickland prejudice prong requires a petitioner to demonstrate “that there is a reasnable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985).

         If the state court has already rejected an ineffective assistance claim, a federal habeas court may only grant relief if that decision was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, the Strickland standard. See Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5 (2003). There is a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Id.

         The United States Supreme Court has described federal review of a state supreme court's decision on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel as “doubly deferential.” Cullen, 563 U.S. at 190 (quoting Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009)). The Supreme Court emphasized that: “We take a ‘highly deferential' look at counsel's performance . . . through the ‘deferential lens of § 2254(d).'” Id. at 1403 (internal citations omitted). Moreover, federal habeas review of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim is limited to the record before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. Cullen, 563 U.S. at 181-84. The United States Supreme Court has specifically reaffirmed the extensive deference owed to a state court's decision regarding claims of ineffective assistance of counsel:

Establishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is all the more difficult. The standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both “highly deferential, ” id. at 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052; Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333, n.7, 117 S.Ct. 2059, 138 L.Ed.2d 481 (1997), and when the two apply in tandem, review is “doubly” so, Knowles, 556 U.S. at 123. The Strickland standard is a general one, so the range of reasonable applications is substantial. 556 U.S. at 124. Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under § 2254(d). When § 2254(d) applies, the question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard.

         Harrington, 562 U.S. at 105. “A court considering a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel must apply a ‘strong presumption' that counsel's representation was within the ‘wide range' of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 104 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). “The question is whether an attorney's representation amounted to incompetence under prevailing professional norms, not whether it deviated from best practices or most common custom.” Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         As discussed below, DeCarolis has failed to show that the Nevada Supreme Court's decision on any of his IAC claims was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of Strickland. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         III. Instant Petition

         DeCarolis claims several instances of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel. Trial transcripts reflect the following. Walmart employee Nicole Moran testified that DeCarolis came into the Walmart money center and presented a payroll check from The Cool Art Company payable to Patric DeCarolis to cash, along with a payroll stub and an expired driver's license that appeared to have been altered to read “Patric DeCarolis” instead of “Patrick DeCarolis.” Exh. 23, pp. 121-138. She stated that she immediately believed the check was fake so she advised her manager who, after unsuccessfully trying to verify that The Cool Art Company existed, called asset ...


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