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Smith v. Davis

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

February 15, 2018

Jacob Brent Smith, Petitioner,
Lorie Davis, Respondent.


          Gray H. Miller United States District Judge

         Petitioner, a state inmate proceeding pro se, filed this section 2254 habeas petition challenging his conviction and thirty-year sentence for evading arrest in a motor vehicle. Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment (Docket Entry No. 12), to which petitioner filed a response (Docket Entry No. 14).

         Having reviewed the motion, the response, the record, and the applicable law, the Court GRANTS the motion for summary judgment and DISMISSES this case for the reasons that follow.

         Background and Claims

          Petitioner was convicted of evading arrest in a motor vehicle in Harris County, Texas, and sentenced to thirty years' incarceration in August 2014. The conviction was affirmed on appeal, Smith v. State, 483 S.W.3d 648 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2015, no pet.), and petitioner did not pursue discretionary review. Petitioner's application for state habeas relief was denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

         Petitioner raises the following grounds for federal habeas relief:

         1. Trial counsel was ineffective:

a. in going outside the record during closing argument;
b. in failing to investigate the police videotapes;
c. in having a conflict of interest;
d. in failing to object to testimony that his co-defendant threw a “crack pipe” out the window.

         2. The prosecution committed Brady error by suppressing police videotapes.

         3. The prosecution committed prosecutorial error in eliciting perjury.

         Respondent argues that these claims are without merit and should be dismissed.

         Factual Background

         The intermediate state court of appeals set forth the following statement of facts in its opinion affirming petitioner's conviction.

Two officers on patrol received a radio dispatch report that a vehicle matching the description of a stolen car was traveling southbound on Interstate 45 in Houston, Texas. The officers parked on the shoulder of the freeway in their marked patrol car and waited for the car to pass them. A car matching the description in the dispatch, including the license plate number, passed the patrol car. The officers began following the car. Two more officers in a second patrol car joined the pursuit behind the first patrol car. Once both patrol cars were behind the stolen car, the officers activated the sirens and lights on their patrol cars.
The driver of the stolen car was in the far left lane when officers started pursuing him, and he “cut across four lanes of traffic and got over to the right side shoulder.” A passenger in the stolen car then threw what was later identified as a “meth pipe” out of the passenger side window, and the driver continued southbound on I-45. The driver then exited onto Highway 59 northbound. At that point, the officer driving the first patrol car pulled up next to the stolen car, and the officer on the passenger side saw the driver, later identified as appellant. The officer in the passenger seat testified that appellant also saw him. Appellant then moved into the emergency lane to get ahead of the patrol car, cutting off several cars in the process.
Appellant eventually exited onto Interstate 10 traveling eastbound, moved into the far left lane, slowed down to approximately five to ten miles per hour, and jumped out of the window of the moving vehicle. He subsequently jumped over the median and ran across the westbound lanes of I-10 in front of oncoming traffic. Officers pursued appellant across traffic on foot. Appellant subsequently slid down an embankment where he injured his ankle and surrendered because he could no longer run.
Officers testified that the car chase lasted four to five minutes over four to five miles, and appellant was traveling approximately the speed limit of 60 miles-per-hour. Appellant's driving was “very erratic, unsafe for other motorists, [and] unsafe for [the officers].” In heavy traffic, appellant swerved through traffic, made fluctuations in his speed and rapid lane changes without signaling, and drove onto the shoulder several times. He cut off nearby drivers and caused them to slam on their brakes. One officer testified that appellant “was trying to get away from us, he . . . tried slowing down to throw us off, [and] he would get real slow and at the last second, dart over.”
The jury found appellant guilty of the third degree felony of evading arrest or detention with a vehicle. Appellant pleaded true to two prior felony convictions. The trial judge enhanced the punishment based on those convictions and assessed punishment at 30 years' confinement.

Smith, 483 S.W.3d at 652-53 (internal citations omitted).

         The Applicable Legal Standards

          Habeas Review

         This petition is governed by the applicable provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). 28 U .S.C. § 2254. Under the AEDPA, federal habeas relief cannot be granted on legal issues adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state adjudication was contrary to clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98-99 (2011); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-05 (2000); 28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(d)(1), (2). A state court decision is contrary to federal precedent if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth by the Supreme Court, or if it confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from such a decision and arrives at a result different from the Supreme Court's precedent. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 7-8 (2002).

         A state court unreasonably applies Supreme Court precedent if it unreasonably applies the correct legal rule to the facts of a particular case, or unreasonably extends a legal principle from Supreme Court precedent to a new context where it should not apply, or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply. Williams, 529 U.S. at 409. In deciding whether a state court's application was unreasonable, this Court considers whether the application was objectively unreasonable. Id. at 411. “It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. As stated by the Supreme Court in Richter,

If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be. As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. It preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with this Court's precedents. It goes no farther. Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a “guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, ” not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.

Id., at 102-03 (emphasis added; internal citations omitted).

         The AEDPA affords deference to a state court's resolution of factual issues. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), a decision adjudicated on the merits in a state court and based on a factual determination will not be overturned on factual grounds unless it is objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 343 (2003). A federal habeas court must presume the underlying factual determination of the state court to be correct, unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see also Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 330-31.

         Summary Judgment

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the district court must determine whether the pleadings, discovery materials, and the summary judgment evidence show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Once the movant presents a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to show with significant probative evidence the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Hamilton v. Segue Software, Inc., 232 F.3d 473, 477 (5th Cir. 2000).

         While summary judgment rules apply with equal force in a section 2254 proceeding, the rules only apply to the extent that they do not conflict with the federal rules governing habeas proceedings. Therefore, section 2254(e)(1), which mandates that a state court's findings are to be presumed correct, overrides the summary judgment rule that all disputed facts must be construed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Accordingly, unless a petitioner can rebut the presumption of correctness of a state court's factual findings by clear and convincing evidence, the state court's findings must be accepted as correct by the federal habeas court. Smith v. Cockrell, 311 F.3d 661, 668 (5th Cir. 2002), overruled on other grounds by Tennard v. Dretke, 542 U.S. 274 (2004).

         Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

          The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to the effective assistance of counsel. U.S. Const. amend. VI. A federal habeas corpus petitioner's claim that he was denied effective assistance of counsel is measured by the standards set out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To assert a successful ineffectiveness claim, a petitioner must establish both constitutionally deficient performance by counsel and actual prejudice as a result of counsel's deficient performance. Id. at 687. The failure to demonstrate either deficient performance or actual prejudice is fatal to an ineffective assistance claim. Green v. Johnson, 160 F.3d 1029, 1035 (5th Cir. 1998).

         A counsel's performance is deficient if it falls below an objective standard of reasonableness. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. In determining whether counsel's performance was deficient, judicial scrutiny must be highly deferential, with a strong presumption in favor of finding that trial counsel rendered adequate assistance and that the challenged conduct was the product of a reasoned trial strategy. West v. Johnson, 92 F.3d 1385, 1400 (5th Cir. 1996). To overcome this presumption, a petitioner must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result of reasonable professional judgment. Wilkerson v. Collins, 950 F.2d 1054, 1065 (5th Cir. 1992). However, a mere error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691.

         Actual prejudice from a deficiency is shown if there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional error, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. at 694. To determine prejudice, the question focuses on whether counsel's deficient performance renders the result of the trial unreliable or the proceeding fundamentally unfair. Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 372 (1993). In that regard, unreliability or unfairness does not result if the ineffectiveness does not deprive the petitioner of any substantive or procedural right to which he is entitled. Id.

         Petitioner claims that trial counsel was ineffective in the following instances.

         Closing Argument

         Petitioner asserts that trial counsel erred in going outside the record during closing argument because it allowed the prosecutor to go outside the record. Specifically, petitioner complains that trial counsel had argued the defense was “ambushed” at trial by unexpected police officer testimony; the prosecution countered in its closing argument that the defense had the same right it did to subpoena witnesses and interview them before trial.

         On direct appeal, petitioner argued that the trial court erred in overruling his objection when the prosecution went outside the record during closing argument. In overruling petitioner's argument, the intermediary state court of appeals held as follows:

         [A]ppellant argues that the trial court abused its discretion in overruling his objection to the prosecutor's statement during closing argument as follows:

Now, defense counsel brought up some issues with the police officers bringing up new evidence and new testimony yesterday. What he's forgetting to tell you, we, the State, we have subpoena power to subpoena witnesses and we do. That's why we're here. That's why we're brought here. He ...

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