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Rock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 22, 2014

WILLIAM ROCK, Petitioner,


SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

Petitioner William Rock ("Rock"), who is presently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Houtszdale, Pennsylvania, initiated this action by filing a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254. (Doc. 1.) In the petition, Rock challenges his 2009 convictions and sentence in the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County, Pennsylvania ("trial court"). For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.

I. Background

On July 9, 2009, Rock was found guilty of: one count of driving under the influence, incapable of driving safely; one count of driving under the influence, highest blood alcohol content; two counts of endangering the welfare of children; one count of careless driving; one count of driving at an unsafe speed; one count of reckless endangerment; and one count of driving with a suspended license. (Doc. 13-15 at 4-5.) The trial court summarized the facts leading to his convictions as follows:

Defendant William Rock was driving his Toyota Camry sedan north on State Route 402 at approximately 1:30 p.m. on June 24, 2008. His two daughters, ages 8 and 6, were passengers in the back seat of the car. A witness who was driving behind Mr. Rock's vehicle testified that the vehicle was repeatedly swerving over both the center line and the fog line. As Mr. Rock approached a motorist in front of him, he drove close to her rear bumper and then attempted to pass her on a blind curve, which was marked as a no passing zone. He lost control of his car, driving across the left lane and down an embankment. The vehicle rolled, landed on its roof and caught fire.
The motorist behind [Mr. Rock], John Ambrose, stopped to assist, and found one girl out of the car, and one struggling to get out. He assisted the child out of the car, and then helped the defendant out of the driver's seat. After Mr. Rock was out of the car, "all of the sudden he climbed back in the car." Mr Ambrose urged Mr. Rock to get out of the car because it was on fire. He saw Mr. Rock reach for something inside the vehicle, and remove it. Mr. Rock then exited the vehicle, and Mr. Ambrose saw that the object was a vodka bottle, which Mr. Rock proceeded to throw into the woods. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance responded to the scene and gave medical attention to Mr. Rock and his daughters. When Pennsylvania State Trooper Thomas Swiech arrived, he noticed that Mr. Rock appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, as evidenced by an unsteady gait, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech and an odor of alcohol. When Trooper Swiech asked [Mr. Rock] if he had been drinking, [Mr. Rock] told him he had had "two beers." Defendant had obvious, bleeding injuries, and he was life-flighted from the scene. At the hospital, his blood-alcohol content was tested and found to be.31%.

(Doc. 13-16 at 25-26.) After Rock was taken from the scene, Mr. Ambrose showed the officer where he had seen Rock throw the vodka bottle. ( Id. at 26.) When the officer found the bottle, it was approximately three-quarters full of vodka. ( Id. )

Rock testified at trial that, on June 24, 2008, he had not been drinking alcohol prior to the accident. (Doc. 13-11 at 5.) According to Rock, he bought a bottle of vodka while on the way to an acquaintance's shop to mill some wood for a window pane, since he thought he would want to "have a couple drinks" while working. ( Id. at 3.) After obtaining the vodka, Rock stopped at the house of a friend, Jason Benoit, to see if Benoit had tools that he could borrow for the milling. ( Id. ) Shortly after leaving Benoit's house, Rock was driving around a curve when he came upon another car in front of him and attempted to brake. ( Id. ) Rather than slowing down, Rock lost control of the car and it "just went to the left, " veering off the road and flipping over. ( Id. ) Rock testified that he then checked on his daughters in the back seat to make sure they were not injured and told them to get out of the car. ( Id. ) Afterward, he noticed his own substantial injuries and began to feel immense pain, so he grabbed the vodka bottle and took two "blasts, " which he described as equivalent to two "big sips." ( Id. ) He then exited the vehicle, but soon went back to retrieve the vodka because he thought he might need more. ( Id. ) However, when he was about to drink more he began to feel too sick to drink, and threw the bottle on the ground. ( Id. )

Rock attempted to obtain two witnesses whom he believed would provide support for his testimony, but they did not arrive on the day of trial. (Doc. 13-1 at 8.) Just before the start of trial, Rock requested that the trial court grant a continuance so he could obtain his witnesses, explaining that his attorney had not sent out subpoenas for these witnesses until the day before and they had not yet been served. ( Id. ) The first witness Rock wished to call was Wilfredo Arroyo, a mechanic who purportedly would have testified that he had worked on another one of Rock's cars a few weeks prior to the accident, and that someone had loosened bolts on the car so that one of the front wheels fell off. ( Id. at 8-9.) The second witness was Jason Benoit, who purportedly would have testified that he had spoken with Rock about five minutes before the accident, and that Rock appeared sober at that time. ( Id. at 9.) The trial court denied Rock's request for a continuance. ( Id. at 10.)

On September 29, 2009, the trial court sentenced Rock to an aggregate sentence of no less than 66 and no more than 144 months. (Doc. 13-16 at 8.) On November 3, 2009, Rock filed an appeal with the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ("Superior Court"), claiming that the trial court erred by denying Rock a continuance so that he could secure his two witnesses. On August 2, 2010, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. (Doc. 13-17 at 23-29.) The Superior Court found that Arroyo's testimony would not have been relevant to the trial, as he could only testify about a car that was not involved in the accident, and that Benoit's testimony would have only been cumulative to Rock's testimony, and was thus not essential to Rock's defense. ( Id. at 27-28.) The Superior Court further found that, even if the trial court had committed error, it would have been harmless error, since the proposed testimony would have been insufficient to overcome the "copious evidence" submitted against him. ( Id. at 29.)

On October 15, 2010, Rock filed a pro se petition for relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. ยงยง 9541 et seq. (Doc. XX-XX-XX-XX.) In his PCRA petition, Rock claimed that: (1) his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to secure his two witnesses; (2) government officials obstructed his right to appeal; and (3) exculpatory evidence had become available that was unavailable at the time of trial. (Doc. 13-18 at 2.) On January 3, 2011, Rock's appointed counsel for his PCRA petition filed a supplement to the petition, which raised the additional claim that Rock's counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to challenge his sentence for being significantly higher than one that was recommended when Rock initially pled guilty.[1] On March 25, 2011, the trial court, now acting as the PCRA court, denied Rock's petition. (Doc. 13-21 at 11-22.) The PCRA court found that Rock's counsel was not ineffective for failing to secure his witnesses because Arroyo's testimony would have been irrelevant and it was impossible to tell what Benoit would have testified to or if his cooperation could have even been secured, since he had not shown up for the PCRA hearing, nor had Rock obtained an affidavit from him. ( Id. at 17-19.) The court also found that Rock's counsel was not ineffective for failing to challenge his sentence because Rock was ultimately found guilty of more crimes than he had previously pled guilty to. ( Id. at 19-20.) The court rejected his claim regarding exculpatory evidence because the only evidence Rock proffered was the testimony of Arroyo and Benoit. ( Id. at 20.) The court rejected his claim of obstruction of his right to appeal because it was not developed in the briefs or at the hearing. ( Id. at 21.)

On July 18, 2011, Rock filed a second PCRA petition. (Doc. 13-22.) This petition raised thirteen issues, among them that: (1) his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise various arguments at trial and for arguing against him when he testified (after the jury trial) regarding his suspended license; (2) his PCRA counsel was ineffective and did not communicate with him in preparation of his hearing; (3) his right to appeal was obstructed because his appellate counsel refused to raise a claim of ineffectiveness regarding his trial counsel; and (4) the evidence was insufficient to convict him at trial. (Doc. 13-22.) The PCRA court dismissed Rock's second petition without a hearing on October 7, 2011, finding that Rock did not make a prima facie showing that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred and that all of his claims had either been previously ruled upon or waived. (Doc. 13-23 at 12-20; Doc. 13-24 at 33.)

On November 23, 2011, Rock appealed the dismissal of his second PCRA petition to the Superior Court, claiming several errors committed by both the PCRA and trial courts. (Doc. 13-24.) On December 21, 2011, during the pendency of his appeal, Rock also attempted to file a third PCRA petition, claiming that he had new evidence to present in the form of the affidavit of Jason Benoit. (Doc. 13-27.) The next day, the PCRA court dismissed this petition, due to his pending appeal. (Doc. 13-27 at 13.) On July 30, 2012, the Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court's dismissal of Rock's second petition, stating only that all of Rock's issues in the petition were "meritless and/or improperly raised." (Doc. 13-28 at 14.)

On September 14, 2012, Rock filed another PCRA petition, again claiming that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial and that he had recently obtained exculpatory evidence that was not available at the time of trial in the form of Benoit's affidavit. (Doc. 13-28 at 1-16.) On December 27, 2012, the PCRA court issued a notice of dismissal without hearing for Rock's petition, finding that it could not rule on his claims because his petition was filed more than one year after the judgment on his case became final, and that Rock failed to allege any of the exceptions to the filing deadline. (Doc. 13-29 at 3-5.) On January 15, 2013, Rock filed a response in which he argued that his petition fell within an exception to the deadline for claims based on facts previously unknown to the petitioner, [2] as he was previously unaware that he could present an affidavit in a PCRA petition. ( Id. at 25.) The PCRA court dismissed the petition without a hearing. (Doc. 13 at 9.)

Rock timely filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus on October 10, 2012. (Doc. 1.) Respondents filed a response on April 22, 2013. (Doc. 13.) Rock filed a traverse to the response on June 3, 2013. (Doc. 16.) Thus, the matter is now ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

In his petition, Rock raises the following grounds for relief:

(1) The trial court denied Rock his right to compel witness testimony in his favor; and
(2) Rock's trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance.

(Doc. 1 at 5, 8.)[3] Respondents contend that these issues were correctly adjudicated on the merits in the state courts. (Doc. 13 at 1-2.) For the reasons that follow, this ...

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