Lujan v. Garcia, 734 F.3d 917 (9th Cir. 2013)

Another state court conviction reversed by a 9th Circuit panel on habeas corpus grounds after the California Court of Appeal affirmed the verdict of first degree murder.

The evidence was overwhelming. The defendant Lujan repeatedly expressed his intention to kill his estranged wife.  He did so by lying in wait, smashing her head with a concrete block and, at the same time, killed a deputy sheriff whom she was dating. Killed the same way.

Detectives interviewed Lujan, informed him of his right to silence, and discussed the right to counsel but not precisely as worded in the standard Miranda card. Later on, the defendant asked if he could have an attorney present, and the detective explained obtaining an attorney on Sunday might be difficult but the decision was up to him.  The detective added some informal information and said the decision to have a lawyer lay in the defendant’s hands. Without reciting all the questions asked of Lujan, the tenor of the conversation was cordial and non threatening. The entire conversation was recorded and confirmed the absence of any coercion or threats.

At the trial in state court, Lujan admitted committing the murder, and the jury found him guilty. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal agreed the Miranda admonition “incomplete” but the confession at trial restating the same information Lujan  gave the detective created harmless error.  The federal district court on habeas corpus agreed on the incorrect explanation of of the Miranda warning. The 9th Circuit embraced this decision citing Harrison v. U.S., 392 U.S. 219 (1968-a case decided during the hey days of Supreme Court constitutional inventions).

The purpose of the Miranda rule informing suspects of the right to counsel and silence emerged to remove the constant argument of inconsistent statements between law enforcement officers and suspects occurring in a confined and threatening environment.  The Supreme Court attempted to eliminate allegations of “involuntary” statements elicited from suspects in custody by advising them of their right to silence and to the assistance of counsel. Well intentioned, but repeatedly expanded by other courts beyond its rationale as written by the Supreme Court.  Lujan is an example.

Because detectives did not read the form Miranda card but spoke to Lujan informally, without threatening or misleading him, the 9th Circuit panel granted habeas.  The trial court even ruled the confession was not involuntary.  In other words, the entire rationale underlying Miranda was absent. That consequence did not deter the 9th Circuit despite the California Court of Appeal decision or AEDPA.  In fact, because the defendant had confessed at trial, the admissibility of the confession in custody became redundant.  “No”, said the panel, if the inadmissible confession induced the defendant to testify it constituted “fruit of the poisoned tree” and could not be introduced in evidence.

Here is a case of a voluntary confession, confirmed by the defendant’s testimony at trial, upheld on appeal by a state court, but reversed by the 9th Circuit. The purpose of the Fifth Amendment prohibition of compulsory self incrimination is completely lacking in the  transcript of the confession.  The detective tried to explain to Lujan the option of talking to him or not, with or without an attorney.  According to the 9th Circuit panel, the detective failed to tell Lujan he could have an attorney before and during the questioning.  This is form over substance and a complete mis application of Miranda rationale.  Now a   man unquestionably convicted of murdering two people may go free or his retrial impaired.

It is time for Congress to end the endless charade of 9th Circuit reversals of state court convictions many years afterward on habeas corpus grounds.   Lujan is a perfect example. Under AEDPA the federal court has a heavy burden to reverse state couirts on collaeral review and must accept a reasonable state court decision-even if incorrect.  In reading the Court of Appeal decision, the state court judges interpreted the Miranda admonition and the questioning reasonably.

Thompson v. Runnels, 657 F.3d 784 (9th Cir. 2011); reversed; 132 S.Ct. 538 (2013)

On remand from the Supreme Court decision in McEven v. Thompson, 132 S.Ct. 538 (2011) after a previous reversal (granting certiorari) a 2-1 majority of a 9th Circuit panel affirmed a 1998 state court conviction of Thompson; 705 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2013). The same judge who wrote the original opinion reversed by the Supreme Court wrote the dissent in this case in a conviction 15 years ago.

The dissent is the kind of judicial condict respsonsible for the inability to finalize state court convictions under AEDPA.  The dissent contends the California Attorney General did not argue the relevant legal principle and therefore waived it. The only issue in the case from start to finish was an alleged Fifth Amendment violation.

The evidence in this case is one of overwhelming guilt.  The only objection raised by the defendant is an alleged MIranda violation which the Supreme Court resolved in Greene v. Fisher, 132 S.Ct. 38 (2011).  Fisher established that a state court must apply Supreme Court decisions published at the time of their rendition.  Nothing could be more logical.  A state court confronted with a Fifth Amendment issue can only apply Supreme Court  law operative at that time.  A Supreme Court decision rendered subsequent to the state court decision is irrelevant.

Not in the 9th Circuit, of course, always seeking state court error. In the last two years the Supreme Court has expanded the impact of AEDPA, particularly at the expense of the 9th Circuit  (4 reversals of death penalty cases in the last term).  The Supreme Court wrote: application of AEDPA [to reverse a state court] is “difficult to meet because its purpose is to ensure that federal habeas corpus relief functions as a guarantee against extreme malfunction of the state criminal justice system and not as a means of error correction.” Greene v. Fisher, 132 S.Ct. 38 (2011).  Nothing could be more relevant – and ignored – to the 9th Circuit. 

Despite the Fisher case,  the dissenting judge tin Thompson who wrote the original opinion reversing the state court conviction, and herself reversed by the Supreme Court, argued in the instant for reversal on remand.  And we wonder why no finality exists in the 9th Circuit.

Hall v. City of Los Angeles, 697 F.3d 1059 (9th Cir. 2012)

There is a school of thought in the law entitled “Social Justice.” Its core belief is the elimination of law and equity, ignore precedent and the common law, and decide a case according to what are the best interests of the party.  Of course under this theory no one can rely on judicial certainty in the course of living and so you just throw it up against a wall and see if it sticks.

No court does it better than the 9th Circuit. The evidence in Hall established he was convicted of robbery, served 19 years in prison, and his conviction affirmed by the state court of appeal.  On appeal he had alleged police had procured his confession falsely. In a federal habeas corpus hearing the district court  found the conviction had been obtained by false evidence and a coerced conviction.  Hall filed a 1983 action against the City and several of its police officers alleging a 14th Amendment substantive due process violation  based on the false conviction and coerced confession.

1983 allows no 14th Amendment violation for coerced confessions; only the 5th Amendment provides that relief.  Accordingly, the district court dismissed the claim as wrongfully pled.  Hall submitted an amended complaint but failed to fulfill the procedural requirements necessary to permit an amended complaint, and the court granted summary judgment on that same claim. 

When Hall filed his 1983 action the district court denied his motion to amend on 5th Amendment grounds because the 9th Circuit had already found that claim meritless. Hall appealed to the 9th Circuit challenging the district court 14th Amendment ruling. 

Hall never asserted his 5th Amendment right in any proceeding, including the instant appeal from the district court. Five years of litigation, after two summary judgments and consistently alleging a 14th Amendment violation, including the current appeal, the 2-1 majority let him amend his complaint to allege a 5th Amendment violation on grounds of manifest injustice.

Whether Hall’s conviction in state court, overruled on federal habeas petition, has merit is not the issue.  As the dissenting judge points  out, Hall never contended a 5th Amendment violation, the correct claim alleging a coerced confession.  The majority panel simply ignored district court rulings, Hall’s brief on appeal, and oral argument. Instead, the majority allowed him the opportunity to amend a complaint on grounds already repeatedly denied.

This is “social justice.”  A misreading of the evidence, and allowing a party to amend pleadings after 5 years of discovery.  The dissent makes the majority opinion sound even worse.  

 

Sessoms v. Runnels, 691 F.3d 1054 (9th Cir. 2012)

After the state court court of appealed affirmed his conviction for murder, Sessoms filed habeas corpus in U.S district court.  Petition denied.  He appealed, and the 9th Circuit panel affirmed the decision; Sessoms v. Runnels, 650 F.3d 1276 (9th Cir. 2011). An en banc hearing (6-5) reversed.  In yet another rejection of Supreme Court precedent, the 9th Circuit majority mandated release of Sessoms or retrial-if the prosecution can produce enough evidence after a trial ending in 1999.

The majority began its opinion with this statement: “Tio Sessoms, a nineteen year old black man, sat alone in an eight by – ten foot interrogation room.” That opening remark forecasts the result of the en banc decision.  And the court does not describe the crime, it only  says the victim was stabbed and choked. Nothing about the unlawful entry of the victim’s house, killing  him, stealing cash and two cars, and fleeing the state.  

The legal issue in the case revolves around Sessoms’ confession to police and its admissibility in trial under Miranda.  The 9th Circuit panel, without detailing the facts to the reader, wrote an en banc 6-5 opinion overruling a state appellate court, a district court judge, and a previous 9th Circuit panel decision.  The serious en banc split confirms the Circuit’s indifference to AEDPA (Anti Terrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA); 28 U.S.C. 2254 (d), the federal statute mandating federal court deference to state courts in habeas corpus rulings unless the state decision is an “unreasonable.application of established Supreme Court law or based on an unreasonable application of the facts. ”

If a three judge state court panel, a district court judge, a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit and 5 en banc dissenting judges agree the state court decision was not “unreasonable,” it is absurd to think the en banc decision should prevail. 

Sessoms surrendered himself. The police conducted his interview without using duress, threats, force, or making any promises.   Before the officers even began their interview, Sessoms asked whether a lawyer was available, but not that he wanted counsel or refused to talk.  The officers, without answering, advised him of his Miranda rights. Under established Supreme Court precedent, an ambiguous answer from a suspect in custody to the two rights of silence and counsel authorizes the officer to clarify the response; U.S. v. Davis, 512 U.S. 452 (1994). 

Davis is the leading case on this issue confirming the right of officers to clarify an ambiguous answer after informing a suspect of Miranda rights.  But Sessoms opened the conversation before the officers said anything.  According to the 9th Circuit, Davis only applies to ambiguous answers after advisement of Miranda rights, not  before.

Congress enacted AEDPA to prevent just this kind of sophistry.  When a decision of 11 en banc judges splits 6-5, a prior 9th Circuit panel has affirmed a district court judge, and a state appellate panel has affirmed the conviction on direct appeal, that 6 en banc judges can tell all these other judges the state court decision is “unreasonable” is judicial.hubris.

Note: Sessoms is one of innumerable reversals by the 9th Circuit evading AEDPA. Another example: Jackson v. Nevada, 2012 WL 3156377 (C.A. 9 ). The trial judge excluded evidence submitted by the defense.  The state court upheld the conviction; the district court on habeas agreed.  On appeal, the 9th Circuit ostensibly applied AEDPA and reversed.  

 These two cases are examples of numerous decisions by the 9th Circuit ignoring the restrictions of AEDPA.  In the last term of the Supreme Court, the Justices verbally lashed the 9th Circuit for its repeated evasion of AEDPA, but the underlying problem is a linguistic one.  AEDPA uses the word “unreasonable” application of Supreme Court law to warrant federal court reversal of a state court decisions on habeas corpus.  The word “unreasonable” is abstract, not concrete, incapable of application without the surrounding circumstances and even then involves a subjective opinion.  Whether the majority en banc panel interprets Sessom’s remarks in violation of Miranda or not, the court is mandated to affirm the state court decision unless the interpretation is “unreasonable.” 

Not only do the words “reasonable”, or “unreasonable” vary contingent on context, the word varies in legal terms.  For example, in a Supreme Court case explaining objections based on alleged “ineffective assistance of [trial] counsel,” the Justices said this: “Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) [the leading case on ineffective assistance of counsel] with unreasonableness under U.S.C. 2254(d).  When 2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel’s actions were reasonable. The question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland’s’s deferential standard;” Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct.770,788 (2011). 

Thus, whether a state court decision is “reasonable” or “unreasonable” depends not only on context and subjective opinion but the applicable legal rules in issue.   Moreover, AEDPA requires the state court ruling to qualify as “unreasonable” as distinct from confirming a decision “reasonable.”  This linguistic distinction compels the 9th Circuit to find fault with the state court decision rather than confirm its “reasonableness.” On habeas corpus cases,  the distinction between these two words imposes on federal courts the burden of establishing an erroneous state court decision, not confirming a correct one.

Aside from the injustice caused by the reversal in the Sessoms case, who was convicted by overwhelming evidence submitted by the dissenting judges, some 9th Circuit judges merely ignore AEDPA and impose their own policy decisions.  And these judges do not review direct appeals from state court convictions.  Ninth Circuit  decisions are on collateral review, and state courts are entitled not only to deference but an exercise of jurisdictional respect.

Compare the California Supreme Court decision in Peo. v. Saudeda-Contreras, 2012 WL 3263996. The defendant gave an equally ambiguous statement to officers informing him of his rights under Miranda.. The California Supreme Court unanimously agreed that officers can clarify the answer if necessary.

In summary, regardless of the facts, jurists will disagree over the proper interpretation of Miranda’s application.  In Saudeda a reversal would have made no difference on retrial since he was seen burning his girlfriend in a trash can.  In Sessoms the defendants choked and stabbed the victim to death.  Incidentally, what would be the appropriate sentence in these two cases?

Both Sessoms and Jackson will be reversed by the Supreme Court.

Thompson v. Runnel, 621 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2010)

The Ninth Circuit majority panel opinion (2-1) once again ignores a Supreme Court admonition, cited by the dissenting judge, that “a federal appellate court ‘lacks’ the fact finding and record keeping capabilities of a district court; McNary v. Haitian Refugee Ctr., 498 U.S. 479)1991).” Not only that, the majority panel writes its decision as though acting in the role of defense counsel. The court majority sets aside the decision of the California Court of Appeal affirming a 1998 conviction in state court, and reverses the U.S. District Court habeas corpus decision affirming the conviction of an admitted murderer. Reversed twelve years after the murder by a court that never saw or heard a single witness, disagreed with the trial court, the state court appellate judges, and rejected its U.S. District Court finding. The defendant and former boy friend of the murder victim told his father he was worried about his girl friend. He and his father went to her house and found she had been stabbed to death and her throat slit. Police immediately focused on the defendant and drove him to the police department to ask questions about the murder. The majority describes the interview room: “The [detectives] moved the defendant into an interview room containing three chairs and no other furniture. . . [t]he officers invented an eyewitness account that put the defendant at the victim’s house at 2:30 p.m.” As the dissenting judge points out, the defendant slept in the room all the time awaiting the officers who apologized for the delay, the room was air conditioned and he was offered food and drink. In any event, the defendant was not Mirandized but ultimately incriminated himself. Quoting the panel: “The interrogation continued . . . and the the officers told the defendant -again-, falsely that they found “evidence connecting him with the crime . . .Taking the bait . . . [t]he questioning resumed and the defendant elaborated on the details of the murder. At that point the officers gave him the Miranda admonition . . . The following day they repeated the Miranda admonition and the defendant offered more details.” Without recounting all the additional details of defendant’s custody, the dissenting judge adds a significant amount of information: that the interrogation room had a couch and television; the defendant was not handcuffed or searched; he never asked for food or water, was not cold; police were not in uniform or armed; the officers offered to let him answer questions at another time if he elected to do so; when he claimed the room was cold the officers turned up the heater. The majority and dissenting judges both agreed the officers did not originally warn the defendant before questioning him but did so after his confession. Failure to warn originally does not, under Supreme Court law, necessarily undermine Miranda if there is a subsequent voluntary confession. In the instant case, the leading Supreme Court decision on invocation of the Miranda decision is Oregon v. Elstad; 470 U.S. 298 (1985). In Elstad, the Supreme Court held “Miranda does not require that subsequent statements [by a suspect] given after unwarned statements [should] be discarded as inherently tainted, and admissibility of any subsequent statement should turn solely on whether it is knowingly and voluntarily made.” In a subsequent case, the Supreme Court decided Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004). The majority Ninth Circuit panel cites Seibert, a 5-4 decision, denying admissibility in evidence of unwarned statements if police use a “two step technique” designed to subvert the Miranda warnings by failing to warn, obtaining a confession, subsequently warn a suspect and obtain a second confession.