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Alvarez v. Davis

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

October 2, 2019

JESSE ALVAREZ, TDCJ No. 2176191, Petitioner,
v.
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHLEEN CARDONE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Petitioner Jesse Alvarez, a state prisoner, challenges Respondent Lori Davis's custody of him through a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 8). Alvarez claims the state trial judge was biased, his counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance, and his guilty plea was involuntary. Pet'r's Pet 6-7, ECF No. 8. Davis avers “Alvarez's first claim was waived by his voluntary guilty plea, the second is meritless, and the third is procedurally defaulted and meritless.” Resp't's Answer 1, ECF No. 25. After reviewing the record and for the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that Alvarez is not entitled to federal habeas relief. Consequently, the Court will deny his petition and, additionally, deny him a certificate of appealability.

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On December 30, 2013, Alvarez robbed Justin Cynor at knifepoint. Clerk's R., ECF No. 27-7, p. 5 (Indictment). On January 27, 2014, he was found with less than four grams of methamphetamine in his possession. Clerk's R., ECF No. 22-9, p. 5 (Indictment). Consequently, he was indicted by a grand jury for aggravated robbery in cause number 20140D00804 and possession of a controlled substance in cause number 20140D001491 in the 41st Judicial District Court of El Paso County, Texas. Pet'r's Pet. 2, ECF No. 8. The indictments noted Alvarez had prior convictions for robbery in cause number 960D11357 in the 243rd District Court and for possession of a controlled substance in cause number 20070D02952 in the 41st Judicial District Court. Alvarez pled guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement, to both offenses and, on January 8, 2018, he was sentenced to twenty-five years' confinement for the aggravated robbery in cause number 20140D00804 and twenty years' confinement for the possession of a controlled substance in cause number 20140D001491. Clerk's R., ECF No. 22-7, pp. 6-18 (J. and Plea Agreement); Clerk's R., ECF No. 22-9, pp. 6-18 (J. and Plea Agreement). The Court sentenced Alvarez for other offenses during the same hearing. Alvarez waived his right to appeal in his plea agreement except in very limited circumstances. Hence, he did not appeal.

         Alvarez filed timely state applications for writs of habeas corpus for each offense on June 26, 2018. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, pp. 19-34 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, pp. 19-36 (State Writ Application - 05). In both applications he asserted the same four claims. First, he maintained he was not competent to stand trial and “Judge Perez refused to accept six exhibits stating [he] was incompetent to stand trial.” Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p. 25 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, p. 25 (State Writ Application - 05). Second, he argued he was denied due process because he was not competent at the time of his plea hearing. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p. 26 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, p. 26 (State Writ Application - 05). Third, he claimed Judge Perez erred when she did not seek amicus counsel to advise her on his competency. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p. 29 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, p. 29 (State Writ Application - 05). Finally, he complained his counsel provided ineffective assistance when he did not research his prior psychiatric evaluations-including one conducted as recently as twenty days before his plea hearing-and argue he was not competent to stand trial. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p. 30 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, p. 30 (State Writ Application - 05). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied both applications without written order on July 18, 2018. Action Taken, ECF 22-6; Action Taken, ECF 22-8.

         Alvarez subsequently filed two more state writ applications. Clerk's R., ECF 22-14, pp. 22-38 (State Writ Application - 06); ECF 22-20, pp. 22-38 (State Writ Application - 07). In these applications he claimed his pleas were “involuntary” because his lawyers ignored his mental health and coached him to get through his plea hearing. Clerk's R., ECF 22-14, p. 44 (State Writ Application - 06); ECF 22-20, p. 44 (State Writ Application - 07). The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed both applications as subsequent and an abuse of the writ statute under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure article 11.07, § 4(a)-(c), on November 7, 2018. Action Taken, ECF 22-10; Action Taken, ECF 22-15. Alverez's federal petition followed on December 3, 2018.

         Alvarez now asserts three grounds for relief. Pet'r's Pet 6-7, ECF No. 8. First, he alleges the trial judge exhibited bias “by not participating impartially in the matter of Petitioner's incompetence to stand trial.” Id., at 13. He maintains she ignored the mental health diagnoses given to him at the Rusk and Vernon state mental hospitals and “sought state-sponsored doctors, who would give contrary diagnoses.” Id. Second, he contends his counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance when they “failed to investigate and take proper ‘pre-trial' measures to present ‘material evidence' in support of Petitioner's only line of defense, which was his ‘incompetence to stand trial.'” Id., at 15. Finally, he claims he “was sedated on strong psychotropic medications” at the time of his plea hearing and, as a consequence, “his plea of guilty was involuntary, and not made knowingly, nor intelligently.” Id., at 17. Alvarez asks for an evidentiary hearing and for the Court to “revers[e] and remand . . . his conviction or in the alternative [enter a judgment of] acquittal.” Id., at 17-18.

         APPLICABLE LAW

         “[C]ollateral review is different from direct review, ” and the writ of habeas corpus is “an extraordinary remedy, ” reserved for those petitioners whom “society has grievously wronged.” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 633-34 (1993). It “is designed to guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice system.” Id. (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring)). It provides an important, but limited, examination of an inmate's conviction and sentence. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011) (“[S]tate courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions.”).

         As a result, the federal habeas courts' role in reviewing state prisoner petitions is exceedingly narrow. “Indeed, federal courts do not sit as courts of appeal and error for state court convictions.” Dillard v. Blackburn, 780 F.2d 509, 513 (5th Cir. 1986). They must generally defer to state court decisions on the merits. Moore v. Cockrell, 313 F.3d 880, 881 (5th Cir. 2002). And they must defer to state court decisions on procedural grounds. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729-30 (1991); Muniz v. Johnson, 132 F.3d 214, 220 (5th Cir. 1998). They may not grant relief to correct errors of state constitutional, statutory, or procedural law unless a federal issue is also present. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); West v. Johnson, 92 F.3d 1385, 1404 (5th Cir. 1996).

         In sum, the federal writ serves as a “‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,' not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102-03 (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 332, n.5). “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Id. at 102.

         A. Adjudicated Claims

         For claims previously adjudicated in state court, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) imposes a highly deferential standard which demands a federal habeas court grant relief only where the state court judgment:

(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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The focus of this well-developed standard “is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect, but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.” Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007). Moreover, the federal habeas court's focus is on the state court's ultimate legal conclusion, not whether the state court considered and discussed every angle of the evidence. Neal v. Puckett, 286 F.3d 230, 246 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc); see also Catalan v. Cockrell, 315 F.3d 491, 493 (5th Cir. 2002) (“we review only the state court's decision, not its reasoning or written opinion”). And state courts are presumed to “know and follow the law.” Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). Factual findings, including credibility choices, are entitled to the statutory presumption, so long as they are not unreasonable “in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). Further, factual determinations made by a state court enjoy a presumption of correctness which the petitioner can rebut only by clear and convincing evidence. Id. § 2254(e)(1); see Clark v. Quarterman, 457 F.3d 441, 444 (5th Cir. 2006) (noting that a state court's determination under § 2254(d)(2) is a question of fact). The presumption of correctness applies not only to express findings of fact, but also to “unarticulated findings which are necessary to the state court's conclusions of mixed law and fact.” Valdez v. Cockrell, 274 F.3d 941, 948 n.11 (5th Cir. 2001).

         B. Unadjudicated Claims

         A state prisoner must exhaust available state remedies before seeking federal habeas corpus relief, thereby giving the state the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1) (explaining that habeas corpus relief may not be granted “unless it appears that . . . the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State”); Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999).

         When a state prisoner presents unexhausted claims, the federal habeas court may dismiss the petition. Whitehead v. Johnson, 157 F.3d 384, 387 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A); Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 519-20 (1982)). If a state prisoner presents a “mixed petition” containing both exhausted and unexhausted claims, the federal habeas court may stay the proceedings or dismiss the petition without prejudice to allow the petitioner to return to state court and exhaust his claims. Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269, 278 (2005); Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 227 (2004). Alternatively, the federal habeas court may deny relief on an unexhausted or mixed claim on the merits, notwithstanding the petitioner's failure to exhaust the remedies available in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2). A federal habeas court may grant relief on an unexhausted or procedurally defaulted claim only if the petitioner demonstrates cause for the default and actual prejudice arising from the default-or shows the failure to consider the claim would result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 749-50; Barrientes v. Johnson, 221 F.3d 741, 758 (5th Cir. 2000). This means that before a federal habeas court may grant relief on an unexhausted claim, the petitioner must show that some objective, external factor prevented him from complying with the state procedural rule. Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 13- 14 (2012). When reviewing an unexhausted claim on the merits, the deferential standard of review does not apply. Instead, the federal habeas court examines unexhausted claims under a de novo standard of review. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 185-86 (2011); Carty v. Thaler, 583 F.3d 244, 253 (5th Cir. 2009).

         ANALYSIS A. Judicial Bias

         Alvarez alleges the trial judge exhibited bias “by not participating impartially in the matter of Petitioner's incompetence to stand trial” at his plea hearing. Pet'r's Pet. 13, ECF No. 8. He maintains she ignored the mental health diagnoses given to him at the Rusk and Vernon state mental hospitals and “sought state-sponsored doctors, who would give contrary diagnoses.” Id.

         “[T]he Constitution does not permit trial of an individual who lacks ‘mental competency.'” Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 170 (2008). But a defendant is deemed competent to stand trial if he has “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding [and if] he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960) (per curiam). And competency to stand trial is a question of fact. Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111, 117 (1983) (per curiam).

         Under § 2254(e)(1), “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct” and the habeas petitioner bears “the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). Because competency to stand trial is a question of fact, a federal court must afford the state trial court the deference due under § 2254(e)(1). Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). In other words, under § 2254(e)(1), the state trial court's determination that a defendant is competent to stand trial and plead guilty is presumed correct.

         The state trial judge determined Alverez was competent to stand trial at his plea hearing on November 30, 2017, in cause numbers 20140D00804 and 20140D001491, as well as cause numbers 20090D01738, 20110D02034, 20140D03710, 20150D00866, 20150D01060, 20110D04489, 20130D00795, 20130D03372, and 20140D03929:

THE COURT: Ms. Estrada, have you had an opportunity to explain State's Exhibits Number 1 [the plea agreement] to your ...

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