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Stout v. Ferguson

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 11, 2019

MARK STOUT, Petitioner
v.
TAMMY FERGUSON, et al., Respondents

          MEMORANDUM

          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

         Petitioner Mark Stout (“Stout”) filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging a judgment and conviction imposed in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1). For the reasons discussed below, the court will deny the petition.

         I. Background [1]

         On or about December 20, 2013, Stout was charged with 200 counts of possession of child pornography and one count of criminal use of a communication facility. (Doc. 1; Commonwealth v. Stout, No. CP-40-CR-258-2014 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. Luzerne Cty.)). On September 26, 2014, Stout pleaded guilty to the charges. (Id.)

         On March 24, 2015, Stout entered a guilty plea to two more counts of possession of child pornography and another count of criminal use of a communication facility. (Doc. 15-1, at 3-4, Disposition Sheet). Also on March 24, 2015, Stout was sentenced on both criminal informations to an aggregate term of imprisonment of 7½ to 15 years. (Id.) Stout filed two motions to reconsider his sentence. (See Doc. 15-1, at 7). On April 28, 2015, the motions were denied. (Id.)

         Stout filed a timely direct appeal. (Doc. 15-1, at 5, Notice of Appeal; see also Commonwealth v. Stout, 1143 MDA 2015 (Pa. Super.)). On December 30, 2015, the appeal was discontinued. (Doc. 15-1, at 76-77, Superior Court's Notice of Discontinuance of Action).

         On February 12, 2016, Stout filed a timely pro se petition for post-conviction collateral relief pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9541-46. (Doc. 15-1, at 80-88, PCRA Petition). The PCRA court dismissed the petition, without prejudice, as premature.

         On May 20, 2016, Stout filed another timely pro se PCRA petition. (Doc. 15-1, at 90-99, PCRA Petition). Counsel was appointed to represent Stout and subsequently submitted a “no merit” letter pursuant to Commonwealth v. Turner, 544 A.2d 927 (Pa. 1988) and Commonwealth v. Finley, 550 A.2d 213 (Pa. Super. 1988) (en banc). (See Doc. 15-1, at 107-08). The PCRA court granted the motion to withdraw filed by PCRA counsel. (See id.) On August 22, 2016, the PCRA court dismissed the petition. (Doc. 15-1, at 102, PCRA Court Order). Stout filed a timely notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court challenging the effectiveness of his plea counsel. (Doc. 15-1, at 105, Notice of Appeal; see also Commonwealth v. Stout, 1600 MDA 2016 (Pa. Super.)). On July 17, 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court's decision denying the petition. Commonwealth v. Stout, 2017 WL 3017081 (Pa. Super. 2017). Stout did not file a petition for allowance of appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

         On November 15, 2017, Stout filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1).

         II. Standards of Review

         The statutory authority of federal courts to issue habeas corpus relief for persons in state custody is provided by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). A habeas corpus petition pursuant to § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a prisoner to challenge the “fact or duration” of his confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99, 93 S.Ct. 1827, 36 L.Ed.2d 439 (1973). “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68, 112 S.Ct. 475, 116 L.Ed.2d 385 (1991). Rather, federal habeas review is restricted to claims based “on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Estelle, 502 U.S. at 68.

         A. Exhaustion

         Habeas corpus relief cannot be granted unless all available state remedies have been exhausted, or there is an absence of available state corrective process, or circumstances exist that render such process ineffective to protect the rights of the applicant. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1). The exhaustion requirement is grounded on principles of comity in order to ensure that state courts have the initial opportunity to review federal constitutional challenges to state convictions. See Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 192 (3d Cir. 2000).

         A state prisoner exhausts state remedies by giving the “state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process.” O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144 L.Ed.2d 1 (1999).[2] Respect for the state court system requires that the petitioner demonstrate that the claims in question have been “fairly presented to the state courts.” Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351, 109 S.Ct. 1056, 103 L.Ed.2d 380 (1989). To “fairly present” a claim, a petitioner must present its “factual and legal substance to the state courts in a manner that puts them on notice that a federal claim is being asserted.” McCandless v. Vaughn, 172 F.3d 255, 261 (3d Cir. 1999); see also Nara v. Frank, 488 F.3d 187, 197-98 (3d Cir. 2007) (recognizing that a claim is fairly presented when a petitioner presents the same factual and legal basis for the claim to the state courts). While the petitioner need not cite “book and verse” of the federal Constitution, Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 278, 92 S.Ct. 509, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971), ...


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