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Hunte v. Ferguson

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 25, 2017

DERRICK HUNTE, Petitioner,
TAMMY FERGUSON, et al., Respondents.


          Rufe, J.

         Petitioner Derrick Hunte[1] seeks relief in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing that his state-court conviction was imposed in violation of the United States Constitution. Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that the Petitioner's claims be denied without a hearing, to which Petitioner objected. For the following reasons, Petitioner's objections will be overruled and the petition for writ of habeas corpus will be denied.


         In 2009, Petitioner was convicted by a jury of robbery, robbery of a motor vehicle, criminal conspiracy, carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm in public, and possessing an instrument of crime, and sentenced to an aggregate term of 16 to 40 ½ years of imprisonment. These charges stemmed from a carjacking.

         On the night of January 29, 2007, Petitioner and three codefendants stole a car from a victim at gunpoint and crashed it into a parked car during a chase with police shortly afterward. Petitioner was apprehended after he fled the stolen vehicle on foot. The victim then identified Petitioner by his face, dreadlocks, complexion, voice, and accent. In addition, the victim told police that one of his robbers had been wearing a green knit skull cap with a hole cut in it, and a hat matching that description was found in Petitioner's pocket after he was arrested. Petitioner was convicted based on the victim's identification and the cap, among other evidence.

         On direct appeal, Petitioner unsuccessfully challenged the sufficiency of the evidence used to identify him as one of the carjackers, and the Superior Court affirmed his conviction. Petitioner sought collateral relief under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), but his petition was dismissed by the PCRA court. Petitioner appealed this dismissal to the Superior Court, raising five claims based on the alleged ineffective assistance of his trial counsel and one claim that he was entitled to PCRA relief under a “cumulative error” standard. The Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of his petition, however, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur.

         Petitioner then filed this pro se habeas petition. The District Attorney filed a response on the merits, to which Petitioner did not reply. Magistrate Judge Strawbridge issued an R&R on April 29, 2016, recommending that the petition be dismissed. Petitioner responded with an “Objection” on May 16, 2016, that generally disputed Magistrate Judge Strawbridge's recommendation, but did not respond to any of the specific conclusions in the R&R.[3] Instead, Petitioner asserted his innocence, raised several new arguments, and requested an extension of 30 days to “file a full response” to the R&R.[4] Petitioner also sought leave to amend the petition to assert new claims based on relatively recent United States Supreme Court cases, the applicability of which were not clear. Magistrate Judge Strawbridge granted the request for an extension of time, but denied the request for leave to amend, ruling instead that Petitioner could address “any effect that new cases have had on his petition in his objections.”[5] Petitioner has not filed any objections within the 30-day extension period, however. The Court will now evaluate the petition on the merits, as well as the arguments raised for the first time in Petitioner's objections.


         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) governs this Petition. Under the AEDPA, “a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus [filed on] behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”[6] Where, as here, the petition is referred to a magistrate judge for a report and recommendation, a district court conducts a de novo review of “those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made, ” and “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.”[7]

         All three of Petitioner's claims concern ineffectiveness of counsel. Under the Supreme Court's decision in Strickland v. Washington, counsel is presumed to have acted reasonably and to have been effective unless a petitioner can demonstrate (1) that counsel's performance was deficient and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced the petitioner.[8] Counsel's performance is only deficient when it is “outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.”[9] Prejudice occurs upon a showing that there is a reasonable possibility that but for counsel's deficient performance the outcome of the underlying proceeding would have been different.[10] For example, “[a]n attorney cannot be ineffective for failing to raise a claim that lacks merit, ” because in such cases, the attorney's performance is not deficient, and would not have affected the outcome of the proceeding.[11] Similarly, an ineffective assistance of counsel claim is not established upon the showing that an error had an effect on the proceedings; rather, a defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different in the absence of such errors.[12]

         When the state court has squarely addressed the issue of counsel's representation, the district court faces a double layer of deference.[13] “[T]he pivotal question is whether the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable, which is different from asking whether defense counsel's performance fell below Strickland's standard.”[14] Federal habeas courts must “take a highly deferential look at counsel's performance under Strickland, through the deferential lens of 2254(d).”[15]


         A. Petitioner's Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

         Petitioner alleges three claims concerning the ineffectiveness of his trial counsel: (1) that counsel was ineffective in litigating the motion to suppress the victim's out-of-court identification of Petitioner; (2) that counsel failed to object when the trial court refused to give a requested cautionary instruction regarding the victim's identification of Petitioner; and (3) that counsel should have objected to the prosecutor's closing argument, in which the prosecutor expressed her belief that Petitioner was guilty. The Superior Court determined that all these claims failed on the merits because counsel's performance was not constitutionally inadequate, and the R&R concluded that this was not an unreasonable application of the Strickland standard.

         1. Suppression of the Victim's Out-of-Court Identification

         First, Petitioner argues that counsel was ineffective while litigating the motion to suppress the victim's out-of-court identification of Petitioner and one of his co-defendants.[16]Specifically, Petitioner argues that he was “unconstitutionally stopped” by the police based only on the victim's description of his robbers as “black males” wearing “dark clothing, ” and that counsel was ineffective for failing to suppress the victim's subsequent identification of Petitioner as a fruit of that allegedly unlawful stop.[17]

         As both the Superior Court and the R&R found, this claim fails because counsel's performance was not deficient.[18] Prior to trial, Petitioner's co-defendant moved to suppress the victim's identification, and Petitioner's counsel joined in the motion, participated in the cross- examination of the prosecution's witnesses, and offered argument to the Court.[19] The trial court denied the motion, finding that the police had reasonable suspicion to detain Petitioner and his co-defendant, and that the victim had identified them in circumstances that were not unconstitutionally suggestive.[20] On review of Petitioner's PCRA petition, the Superior Court agreed, finding that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop Petitioner because he and his co-defendants matched the victim's description of his assailants, they were the only people on the “otherwise deserted streets” in the vicinity of the carjacking shortly after it took place, and Petitioner was suspiciously not wearing a jacket despite the fact that it was a cold January night.[21] The Superior Court thus concluded that Petitioner's stop was supported by reasonable suspicion and that the victim's subsequent identification was not invalid, meaning that the trial court properly denied the suppression motion on the merits, not because of any deficiency in counsel's performance.[22]

         The Court agrees. Counsel was fighting a losing battle on the suppression motion, and Petitioner offers no cogent explanation as to how counsel's performance on that front fell below the standard guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. While Petitioner argued before the Superior Court that counsel should have filed a separate suppression motion, rather than joining his co-defendant's, and failed to present case law in support of the motion, these proposed tactical shifts likely would not have altered the trial court's ruling, given the evidence that Petitioner's stop was supported by reasonable suspicion.[23] The Superior Court's conclusion that counsel was not ineffective was thus reasonable.

         2. The Trial Court's Refusal to Give an Eyewitness Cautionary Instruction

         Second, Petitioner argues that counsel was ineffective for “not objecting to the denial of an eyewitness cautionary instruction” (sometimes referred to as a “Kloiber” instruction).[24]However, both the Superior Court and the R&R found that because Petitioner's counsel requested such an instruction, which the trial court found was unwarranted under Pennsylvania law, there was no point in counsel objecting to this denial.[25]

         The Court agrees. Under Pennsylvania law, a Kloiber instruction is only required “where the eyewitness: (1) did not have an opportunity to clearly view the defendant; (2) equivocated on the identification of the defendant; or (3) had a problem making an identification in the past.”[26]None of these circumstances were present, so it was not error for the trial court to refuse to give the cautionary instruction, and counsel was not ineffective for opting not to press the issue after the trial court denied the request.[27]

         3. Counsel's Failure to Object to the Prosecution's Closing Argument

         Finally, Petitioner argues that counsel was ineffective for failing to object during the prosecutor's closing arguments, in which she expressed her “personal belief in [Petitioner's] guilt.”[28] Specifically, the prosecutor ended her closing by telling the jury: “And I suggest to you, when you do carefully consider all of the evidence, that you will come to the same conclusion that I reached a long time ago, which is that the defendant is guilty of the things that he's been charged with.”[29] Petitioner claims that this ...

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