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Wheeler v. Allbaugh

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

February 26, 2019

JOE ALLBAUGH, Warden, [1] Respondent.


          Terence C. Kern United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Petitioner Tommy Montana Wheeler's habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner challenges his Tulsa County District Court convictions for armed robbery, Case No. CF-2008-5609. Dkt. 1 at 1. For the reasons below, the Court will deny the petition.

         I. Background

         Petitioner's convictions stem from an incident in 2008, when he robbed a pharmacy. Dkt. 12-2 at 3. The State charged him with robbery using a firearm after three felonies in violation of Okla. Stat. tit. 21, § 801. Dkt. 12-5 at 1; see also Dkt. 4 at 3. On April 20, 2009, Petitioner entered a negotiated plea. Dkt. 12-2. He agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment. Id. The state court accepted the plea and sentenced Petitioner to 30 years imprisonment, a $500 fine, and a $250 victim of crime assessment. Dkt. 12-1. Petitioner must serve 85% of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Dkt. 12-2 at 2. Judgment on the conviction and sentence was entered April 22, 2009. Dkt. 12-1.

         A few days later, Petitioner consulted with other inmates and decided to withdraw his plea. Dkt. 4 at 2. He asked counsel to file a motion to that effect, but counsel allegedly failed to do so within the ten-day withdrawal window. Id. On September 22, 2009, Petitioner filed an application for post-conviction relief. Dkt. 12-4 at 8. He was eventually granted the right to appeal out of time. Id. at 9. Thereafter, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) directed the public defender to file a motion to withdraw the plea. Id. at 9-10. Plea Counsel filed the motion on September 13, 2011. Id. at 10. The motion alleged Plea Counsel failed to advise Petitioner that: (a) robbery is an 85% crime; (b) a 30-year sentence is grossly excessive. Id. The state court appointed Conflict Counsel, held a hearing on October 10, 2011, and denied the motion to withdraw. Id. at 10-11.

         After some procedural glitches, Petitioner eventually perfected a certiorari appeal to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (“OCCA”). Dkt. 12-4 at 10-13. His appellate counsel raised three propositions of error:

(Proposition 1): The plea was involuntary.
(Proposition 2): Plea Counsel rendered ineffective assistance.
(Proposition 3): The sentence is excessive.

Dkt. 12-5 at 2. By a Summary Opinion entered February 25, 2016, the OCCA denied certiorari relief and affirmed Petitioner's conviction. Id.

         Petitioner filed the instant § 2254 Petition (Dkt. 1) on March 22, 2016. He identifies the same grounds for relief as he raised in the certiorari appeal. Respondent filed a Response (Dkt. 12) along with copies of the state court record (Dkt. 13). Respondent concedes, and the Court finds, that the petition is timely and the exhaustion requirement is satisfied. See Dkt. 12 at 2; see also 28 U.S.C. §§ 2244(d)(1), 2254(b)(1)(A). The matter is therefore ready for a merits review.

         II. Discussion

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) governs this Court's review of petitioner's habeas claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Relief is only available under the AEDPA where the petitioner “is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Further, because the OCCA already adjudicated petitioner's claims, this Court may not grant habeas relief unless he demonstrates that the OCCA's ruling: (1) “resulted in a decision that was contrary to . . . clearly established Federal law as determined by Supreme Court of the United States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1);[2] (2) “resulted in a decision that . . . involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law, ” id.; or (3) “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts” in light of the record presented to the state court, id. at § 2254(d)(2).

         “To determine whether a particular decision is ‘contrary to' then-established law, a federal court must consider whether the decision ‘applies a rule that contradicts [such] law' and how the decision ‘confronts [the] set of facts' that were before the state court.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 182 (2011) (alterations in original) (quotations omitted). When the state court's decision “identifies the correct governing legal principle in existence at the time, a federal court must assess whether the decision ‘unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Id. (quotations omitted). Significantly, an “unreasonable application of” clearly established federal law under § 2254(d)(1) “must be objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (quotations omitted). “[E]ven clear error will not suffice.” Id. Likewise, under § 2254(d)(2), “a state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.” Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010). The Court must presume the correctness of the OCCA's factual findings unless petitioner rebuts that presumption “by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         Essentially, the standards set forth in § 2254 are designed to be “difficult to meet, ” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011), and require federal habeas courts to give state court decisions the “benefit of the doubt.” Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). A state prisoner ultimately “must show that the state court's ruling ... was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 103.

         Ground 1: Involuntary Plea

         In Ground 1, Petitioner contends his guilty plea was involuntary. Dkt. 1 at 6. He argues he signed the plea agreement while suffering from opiate withdrawals and taking new prescription medication (antipsychotics and mood stabilizers). Dkt. 4 at 2, 7. Petitioner further argues he only signed the agreement to obtain a transfer out of the Tulsa County Jail, where he felt unsafe due to his gender confusion. Id. Under these circumstances, Petitioner contends the state court violated the Due Process Clause by denying his motion to withdraw the plea. Id.

         To comport with due process, a plea must be knowing, voluntary and intelligent. See Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 747-78 (1970); Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969). A plea is knowing and intelligent if the defendant “understands [the plea's] direct consequences, ” even if he does “not understand every collateral consequence.” United States v. Hurlich, 293 F.3d 1223, 1230 (10th Cir. 2002). At a minimum, the defendant must understand the nature of the charges against him, the possible penalties, including the maximum penalty that may be imposed, and the constitutional rights he is waiving by entering a plea. See Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 756-57 (1970); Boykin, 395 U.S. at 242-44. To be voluntary, the defendant must make the ultimate decision to plea. See Fields v. Gibson, 277 F.3d 1203, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002) (explaining that a plea may be involuntary if counsel “materially misinforms the defendant of the consequences of the plea”) (quoting United States v. Rhodes, 913 F.2d 839, 843 (10th Cir. 1990)); United States v. Estrada, 849 F.2d 1304, 1306 (10th Cir. 1988) (“[C]oercion by the accused's counsel can render a plea involuntary.”). “Whether a plea is voluntary is a question of federal law, but this legal conclusion rest on factual findings and inferences from those findings.” Fields, 277 F.3d at 1212.

         In determining whether a plea is knowing and voluntary, habeas courts may consider the petitioner's signed plea worksheet or other written documents relevant to the plea. See Hoffman v. Young, 23 Fed. App'x 885, 887 (10th Cir. 2001) (unpublished)[3] (“[R]eliance upon … documentary evidence such as the questions and answers to a form may be sufficient to make th[e] determination” that “a guilty plea is knowing and voluntary”); Cross v. Franklin, 520 Fed. App'x. 671, 674-75 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (rejecting involuntary plea claim where the signed plea worksheet listed the proper range of punishment and petitioner indicated he knew the punishment range); Brown v. Dep't of Corrs. Oklahoma State Penitentiary, 597 Fed.Appx. 960, 963 (10th Cir. 2014) (finding a plea was voluntary where defendant acknowledged the maximum penalty in writing). The petitioner's testimony at the plea hearing as to the knowing and voluntary nature of his plea is also accorded a strong presumption of ...

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