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James v. Smith

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 13, 2017

SERGIO T. JAMES, Petitioner,
RAYMOND SMITH, Warden, and HECTOR H. BALDERAS, Attorney General for the State of New Mexico, Respondents.


         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (“Petition”) (Doc. 1), filed by Sergio T. James (“Petitioner”) on March 22, 2017, and fully briefed August 14, 2017 (Docs. 12, 14). The Honorable Judith C. Herrera referred this case to me to conduct hearings, if warranted, including evidentiary hearings, and to perform any legal analysis required to recommend to the Court an ultimate disposition of the case. Doc. 4. Having reviewed the submissions of the parties and the relevant law, the Court finds that it is able to make a decision based on the current record.[1] The Court recommends that relief based on Grounds One, Two, and Four of the Petition be denied. As discussed below, further briefing is required on Ground Three.

         I. Background Facts and Procedural Posture[2]

         Petitioner challenges two New Mexico state court convictions out of the Ninth Judicial District Court. Doc. 1 at 1. Both convictions are for trafficking controlled substances in the first degree based upon hand-to-hand buys with a confidential informant (“CI”). The first conviction in docket number D-0905-CR-2011-00382 (“Case No. 382”) involved a CI buy on May 12, 2011; the second conviction in docket number D-0905-CR-2011-00383 (“Case No. 383”) involved a CI buy on May 11, 2011.

         In Case No. 382, a jury found Petitioner guilty on December 18, 2012. On appeal, the New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, and the Supreme Court denied his Petition for Writ of Certiorari. Petitioner then sought collateral relief by filing a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus with the Ninth Judicial District Court of New Mexico. The district court denied his Petition, and he then filed a Motion for Reconsideration and a yet second Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. The district court denied the reconsideration motion and dismissed the second Petition Once again, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

         In Case No. 383, Petitioner was found guilty on April 21, 2014, following a jury trial. Once again, the New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, and the New Mexico Supreme Court denied his Petition for Writ of Certiorari. Petitioner then filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus with the Ninth Judicial District Court of New Mexico that was denied by the district court on November 2, 2014. The New Mexico Supreme Court then denied his Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

         II. This Federal Petition Addresses Two State Court Convictions

         As an initial matter, Respondents argue that the Petition should be dismissed without prejudice because Petitioner is using a single habeas corpus petition to challenge state court convictions in both Case No. 382 and No. 383. Respondents assert that 28 U.S.C § 2254 allows challenges of only a single state action, as exemplified through the statute's use of singular words such as “the judgment” and “a decision.” Doc. 12 at 15-16.

         While Section 2254 does reference a challenge to a single action, the Court recommends allowing Petitioner to go forward with this action challenging two state court convictions because, as both Petitioner and Respondents concede, the convictions stem from a common set of facts. See Doc. 1 at 1 (Petition) (“Cases arise out of events that are similar, ongoing actions, however, they were separated by the State and tried separately.”); Doc. 12, ¶ 2 (Respondents' Answer) (“A review of the record for both cases . . . does seem to support that one set of common facts gave rise to the separate prosecutions.”).

         Indeed, on May 11 and May 12, 2011, agents set up and executed nearly identical controlled buys with the same CI. During both transactions, agents gave the CI $100 and instructed him to purchase crack cocaine from Petitioner at Petitioner's residence. On both occasions, agents searched the CI and his vehicle before he left, and the CI was recorded driving to and from the residence. Similar video recordings show the CI entering the residence, engaging in small talk, and leaving. Upon return to the agents, the CI was searched, and the CI presented the agents with crack cocaine.

         In Guerra v. Mott, a petitioner presented a Section 2254 petition to the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, which challenged three state court convictions. No. 13-3211-SAC, 2014 WL 201012, at *1 (D. Kan. Jan. 17, 2014). The court suggested that two of the convictions, attempt to commit sexual exploitation of a child and rape, happened at the same time and were related, while the third conviction, battery against a corrections officer, happened at a different time. Id. at *1 & n.2. The court dismissed the petition for the “unrelated battery” but allowed a single petition for the other two convictions to go forward. Id. at *1. Similar to Guerra, the convictions challenged by Petitioner arose from the same drug trafficking investigation and operation and involved a common set of facts very near in time. The Court therefore recommends that the Court allow the single petition for the two related convictions.

         III. Petitioner's Claims

         Petitioner asserts four grounds for relief: (1) Petitioner was denied his right to confront the CI; (2) there was insufficient evidence to convict Petitioner, in violation of his right to due process; (3) the arresting agent obtained the warrant for Petitioner's arrest on perjured information, in violation of Petitioner's right to due process; and (4) the trial court erred in admitting a copy of a video recording without requiring the State to produce the original recording. Doc. 1.

         IV. Legal Standard

         Federal courts have statutory authority under Section 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), to issue habeas corpus relief for persons in state custody. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 97-98 (2011). AEDPA “circumscribes our review of federal habeas claims that were adjudicated on the merits in state-court proceedings.” Hooks v. Workman, 689 F.3d 1148, 1163 (10th Cir. 2012). AEDPA does not require that a state court provide a statement of reasons. “The statute refers only to a ‘decision, ' which resulted from an ‘adjudication.'” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 98.

         Therefore, even if the state court failed to provide an opinion stating its reasoning, as long as the state court has made a determination on the merits, Section 2254(d) bars relitigation of that claim in a federal habeas action, subject to only two exceptions. Id. A federal court may grant relief from a state court decision only where a petitioner demonstrates that the trial court's resolution of his claims was “‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States' or ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'” Hooks, 689 F.3d at 1163 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), (2)).

         In the two-step inquiry under Section 2254(d)(1), the threshold question asks whether the applicant is seeking to invoke a rule of law that was clearly established by the Supreme Court at the time the conviction became final. Byrd v. Workman, 645 F.3d 1159, 1165 (2011); see also Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 390 (2000). If the law was clearly established, then the court determines whether the state court decision was “contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of that clearly established law.” Byrd, 645 F.3d at 1165 (quoting Turrentine v. Mullin, 390 F.3d 1181, 1189 (10th Cir.2004) (internal quotations omitted)). A state-court decision is “contrary to” clearly established law “if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth” by the Supreme Court or “if it decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court has] done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Hooks, 689 F.3d at 1163 (quoting Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002)). “A state-court decision is an ‘unreasonable application' of clearly established federal law when the state court ‘identifies the correct governing legal principle from th[e Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of ...

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