Eleventh Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Habeas Corpus Petition

In Pineda v. Warden, No. 14-13772, 2015 WL 5521565 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s denial of the defendant’s petition for habeas under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (1996). Section 2254(d) states that a federal court may only grant a habeas petition following a state court proceeding if the state court’s decision was not: (1) made on the merits; (2) the result of an unreasonable interpretation of federal law; or (3) was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence presented.

After being convicted of trafficking cocaine and sentenced to thirty years, the defendant moved for a new trial, claiming that his counsel had been ineffective by failing to file a motion to suppress evidence retrieved in a search of the defendant’s former apartment. To justify a search of the defendant’s apartment, officers said they knocked on the door and received no answer. The officers claimed that they then looked through a window of the apartment and saw that the apartment appeared abandoned. After informing the apartment manager that the apartment was abandoned, they followed her into the apartment at her request to determine if it was in fact abandoned. Inside the residence, the officers found four packages of cocaine, one of which had a partial fingerprint matching that of the defendant. At trial, evidence showed that the officers could not have determined that the apartment was empty from the window that they looked through.

At trial, defendant’s counsel did not file a motion to suppress the fruits of the search. At an evidentiary hearing for the defendant’s motion for a new trial, defendant’s counsel stated that the decision was based on the defendant’s lack of standing to contest the search, since the apartment had been abandoned. The trial court found that the defendant was not prejudiced under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); since the defendant did not have standing, the defendant had no valid claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion for a new trial.

The defendant filed a habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia under § 2254. The district court dismissed the defendant’s petition, stating that the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision was entitled to deference under § 2254(d).

The Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, stating that the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision is entitled to deference under § 2254(d) since the court’s decision was: (1) on the merits; (2) the result of a reasonable application of federal law; and (3) the result of a reasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence. The Eleventh Circuit found that, because the Georgia Court of Appeals evaluated both prongs of an ineffective assistance of counsel analysis under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the decision was on the merits. Next, the court held that, although the Georgia Court of Appeals’ finding that the officers looked into the apartment was unreasonable, the court’s order was still reasonable because it relied on other grounds.

The court rejected the contention that the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision was an unreasonable application of federal law since the defendant’s counsel did not anticipate the later holding in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945, 949 (2012), which established the trespass test for a Fourth Amendment search. The court stated that, had Jones been decided prior to the defendant’s trial, the same abandonment standard would have applied and therefore the defendant still would have lacked standing. The court stated that it looks to the totality of the circumstances at the time of search to determine if property was in fact abandoned. Based on the condition of the apartment, and the fact that the defendant had a new residence, the court found that the defendant had indeed abandoned the apartment. The court concluded that, since the defendant lacked standing, the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision was entitled to deference and affirmed the dismissal of the defendant’s habeas petition.

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