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Rigel v. State of New Mexico Corrections Department

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 20, 2019

TRAVIS RIGEL,, Petitioner,
v.
STATE OF NEW MEXICO CORRECTIONS DEPARTMENT, et al.,, Respondents.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         This Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition addresses Petitioner Rigel's habeas corpus petition filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and considers whether the State of New Mexico violated Petitioner Rigel's rights under the United States' Constitution when it denied his motion to withdraw his guilty plea to armed robbery and rejected his argument that he was factually innocent of that offense. The state court decisions rejecting Rigel's arguments were neither contrary to law nor based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. As a result, I recommend denying Rigel's petition.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         Petitioner Travis Rigel, proceeding pro se, is in custody pursuant to a Judgment, Partially Suspended Sentence and Commitment, filed January 14, 2014, in the Second Judicial District Court for the State of New Mexico in consolidated Cause Nos. CR 2009-01961 and CR 2011-03826. Doc. 16-1, Ex. A. Rigel filed the 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition that is currently before the Court on February 5, 2016.[3] Doc. 1. Although Rigel initially asserted several claims, the Court determined that he failed to exhaust State remedies with regard to all but one of those claims. Doc. 18. His exhausted claim is that the district court erroneously denied his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Id. Specifically, Rigel argues that he had insufficient time to consider whether to plead guilty to the armed robbery charge and that he is factually innocent of armed robbery (Doc.1 at 5, 7, 8, 18, 20). Rigel has cleared the path to pursuing these arguments through a § 2254 Petition by voluntarily dismissing his unexhausted claims. Doc. 19. Before analyzing the merits of these arguments, I set forth the relevant background.

         a. Underlying District Court Proceedings in CR 2009-01961 and CR 2011-03826

         On April 20, 2009, a state grand jury indicted Petitioner in CR 2009-01961 on fourteen counts in connection with the February 28, 2009, death of Felix Zamora. See Ex. BB. On August 18, 2011 -- while Petitioner was in custody awaiting trial in CR 2009-01961 -- a grand jury indicted Petitioner in CR 2011-03826 with one count of possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner. See Ex. CC.

         The next year, on June 29, 2012, Petitioner appeared before the district court for a change-of-plea hearing. Ex. B. At that time, Robert Tangora, Petitioner's third attorney, represented Petitioner in both cases. Id. The district court consolidated both cases for purposes of the plea hearing. Ex. C. At the start of the plea hearing, the State of New Mexico informed the district court that it was filing a criminal information in open court charging Petitioner with a new count in CR 2009-01961 for armed robbery (Count 15) in connection with Mr. Zamora's death. Ex. D; Ex. Y at 2. Petitioner waived a preliminary hearing and presentation to the grand jury on the armed robbery charge. Ex. E. The district court arraigned Petitioner on the armed robbery charge and then proceeded with the plea hearing. Ex. Y at 2-4.

         Petitioner entered into a Plea and Disposition Agreement, which the district court approved. Ex. B. In CR 2009-01961. Petitioner pled guilty to second degree murder (Count 1), first degree kidnapping (Count 3), and second degree armed robbery (Count 15).[4] Id. In CR 2011-03826, Petitioner pled guilty to possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner. Id. Petitioner's plea agreement included his signed statement that he “reviewed this matter and agree[s] that the plea and disposition are appropriate and are in the best interest of justice.” Id. The plea agreement also included defense counsel's signed statement that:

I have discussed this case with my client in detail and have advised the defendant of defendant's constitutional rights and all possible defenses. I believe that the plea and disposition set forth herein are appropriate under the facts of this case. I agree with the plea outlined in this agreement and its terms and conditions.

Id. During the plea hearing, Petitioner stated he had “very thoroughly” discussed with Mr. Tangora the constitutional rights he was giving up by pleading guilty and described himself as “very satisfied” with Mr. Tangora's legal advice and legal representation. Ex. Y at 7-8.

         Petitioner's sentencing hearing was scheduled for September 7, 2012. Ex. Z. The hearing was cut short after an individual brought illegal narcotics to the courtroom and allegedly attempted to pass the narcotics to Petitioner before the judge took the bench for the sentencing. Id.; see also Ex. G. The court continued Petitioner's sentencing to a later date and permitted Mr. Tangora to withdraw as defense counsel. Id. On December 19, 2012, Mark Earnest entered his appearance on behalf of Petitioner. Ex. K.

         The State moved to void Petitioner's sentencing agreement based on the September 7, 2012, courtroom incident. Ex. G; Ex. Y at 4. Petitioner moved to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing in relevant part that: (1) if Mr. Tangora had pursued a motion to suppress filed by Petitioner's previous attorney, [5] he would not have pled guilty “because he had a good chance of prevailing on such a motion”; (2) he was not apprised of the nature of the armed robbery charge because it was filed on the day of the plea hearing; and (3) he was actually innocent of armed robbery. Ex. L. After a hearing, the district court denied Petitioner's motion to withdraw his guilty plea as well as the State's motion to void the sentencing agreement. Docs. N, O.

         On January 14, 2014, the district court entered judgment and sentenced Petitioner to a total consecutive[6] sentence of imprisonment of 51 years, of which 10 years were suspended, for an actual sentence of imprisonment of 41 years to be followed by 2 years on parole and 5 years of supervised probation. Ex. A. The court gave Petitioner credit for 1, 577 days pre-sentence confinement as well as any post-sentence confinement prior to his transfer to the New Mexico Corrections Department. Id.

         b. Appeal to New Mexico Court of Appeals and New Mexico Supreme Court

         On February 12, 2014, Petitioner filed a direct appeal to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. Doc. Q. The sole issue Petitioner raised on appeal was that the district court erroneously denied his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Doc. R. Petitioner argued that the district court should have granted the motion to withdraw because “he was not apprised of the nature of at least one of the crimes to which he was pleading guilty, specifically the armed robbery charge and he was, in fact, factually innocent of that charge.” Id. at 9.

         After the New Mexico Court of Appeals proposed summary affirmance, Petitioner filed a memorandum in opposition. Doc. S, Doc. T. In addition to the above arguments, Petitioner asserted that his trial counsel should have pursued the motion to suppress. Doc. T at 1-2. Petitioner acknowledged that Mr. Tangora testified at the hearing on the withdrawal motion “that he had advised [Petitioner] about what the offense of armed robbery entailed and that they had discussed such a plea prior to the date of the guilty plea hearing.” Id. Mr. Tangora also testified that “he did not pursue prior counsel's motion to suppress because he was focused on getting [Petitioner] the benefit of a plea deal.” Id. at 2. In his briefing, Petitioner requested a “limited remand to permit an evidentiary hearing as to whether he experienced ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. at 2-3.

         On December 16, 2014, the New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Petitioner's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Doc. U. The court noted that the district court held a hearing on the withdrawal motion “at which evidence was introduced establishing that [Petitioner] had been properly advised by counsel prior to the plea hearing.” Id. at 2. The court determined that Petitioner failed to offer “any reason to believe that such consultation [with his trial counsel] was insufficient to allow [Petitioner] to ...


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