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Saleem v. Garman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 11, 2019

MARK GARMAN, et al., Respondents


          Robert D. Mariani United States District Judge.

         Petitioner Mohammad Sohail Saleem ("Saleem") filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging a conviction and sentence imposed in the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1). Saleem subsequently filed an amendment to the petition. (Doc. 17). For the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny the petition.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         In 2014, Saleem was charged with various sexually-related offenses in the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County. See Commonwealth v. Saleem, CP-38-CR-0001112-2014, CP-38-CR-0000565-2014 (Lebanon County Ct. Com. Pl.). On April 21, 2015, Saleem pled guilty to indecent assault and harassment involving two victims who were employees of a small business he owned. See Commonwealth v. Saleem, 2017 WL1223851, *1 (Pa. Super. 2017). Saleem was subsequently found to be a sexually violent predator pursuant to 42 PA. C.S.A. § 9792. Id. On June 3, 2015, a sentencing hearing was held. Id. At sentencing, following a discussion regarding possible deportation proceedings, the trial court sentenced Saleem to an aggregate prison term of twenty-one (21) months to ten (10) years. Id. Saleem thereafter filed two post-sentence motions claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, which the trial court denied without prejudice to Saleem seeking relief under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 PA. CONS. STAT. §§ 9541-46. Id.

         On September 1, 2015, Saleem filed a counseled PCRA petition regarding the voluntariness of his plea. (Doc. 13-18). Saleem argued that his plea was predicated upon a promise that he would be deported to Pakistan. (Id. at pp. 5-8). When Saleem was not deported, he argued that he was deprived of the benefit of his plea bargain. Id. Saleem further argued that his guilty plea counsel was ineffective for leading him to believe that deportation would occur. Id. The PCRA court held a hearing and ultimately denied the PCRA petition, finding that immediate deportation was not a part of the plea agreement. (Doc. 13-19; Doc. 13-23). Rather, as part of the plea agreement, the District Attorney's office agreed that it would have no objection to deportation and would not take any action to prevent deportation. (Doc. 13-19, p. 42; Doc. 13-23, p. 10). The PCRA court further noted that Saleem's attorney communicated to him that there was no guarantee that he would be deported. (Doc. 13-19, pp. 42-43; Doc. 13-23, pp. 10-11). Specifically, Saleem's attorney wrote a letter to him explaining that, "There is no way to determine how much of your sentence you will have to serve before you are deported. It is possible that you would have to serve your entire sentence, possibly 50 years or more, before, you are deported." (Doc. 13-19, p. 42; Doc. 13-23, p. 10).

         Saleem filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Commonwealth v. Saleem, 2017 WL1223851. On March 28, 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court's denial of the petition. Id. Saleem did not file a petition for allowance of appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

         On April 6, 2017, Saleem filed a second PCRA petition. (Doc. 13-28). He filed an amended petition on May 18, 2017. (Doc. 13-29). On June 16, 2017, the PCRA court denied the petition as untimely. (Doc. 13-32). Saleem filed a notice of appeal. On May 1, 2018, the Superior Court found that Saleem did not meet his burden of proving that his untimely PCRA petition fit within any of the three exceptions to the PCRA's time-bar, and affirmed the order of the PCRA court dismissing the petition as untimely. Commonwealth v. Saleem, 2018 WL 2016409 (Pa. Super. 2018).

         On May 10, 2018, Saleem filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus challenging his status as a sexually violent predator. See Commonwealth v. Saleem, 2019 WL 1754670, at *1 (Pa. Super. 2019). On September 4, 2018, the PCRA court treated his petition for habeas corpus as a PCRA petition, and dismissed it as untimely. See Id. Saleem filed a notice of appeal. See Id. On April 17, 2019, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that the PCRA court correctly treated Saleem's habeas corpus petition as a PCRA petition, and correctly dismissed it as untimely. Id.

         On June 26, 2017, Saleem filed the instant federal habeas petition. (Doc. 1). He filed an amendment to the petition on November 9, 2017. (Doc. 17).

         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).[1] 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), he must "give the State 'the opportunity to pass upon and correct' alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights" before presenting those claims here, Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365, 115 S.Ct. 887, 130 L.Ed.2d 865 (1995) (quoting Picard, 404 U.S. at 275, 92 S.Ct. 509).

         B. Merits Standard

         Once a court has determined that the exhaustion requirement is met and, therefore, that review on the merits of the issues presented in a habeas petition is warranted, the scope of that review is set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Section 2254(d) provides, in pertinent part, that an application for a writ of habeas corpus premised on a claim previously adjudicated on the merits in state court shall not be granted unless:

(1) [the decision] was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) [the decision] was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). To establish that the decision was contrary to federal law "it is not sufficient for the petitioner to show merely that his interpretation of Supreme Court precedent is more plausible than the state court's; rather, the petitioner must demonstrate that Supreme Court precedent requires the contrary outcome." Matteo v. Superintendent, 171 F.3d 877, 888 (3d Cir. 1999). Similarly, a federal court will only find a state court decision to be an unreasonable application of federal law if the decision, "evaluated objectively and on the merits, resulted in an outcome that cannot reasonably be justified under existing Supreme Court precedent." Id.

         Further, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), a federal court is required to presume that a state court's findings of fact are correct. A petitioner may only rebut this presumption with clear and convincing evidence of the state court's error. Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 341 (2003) (stating that the clear and convincing standard in § 2254(e)(1) applies to factual issues, whereas the unreasonable application standard of § 2254(d)(2) applies to factual decisions); Matteo, 171 F.3d at 888; Thomas v. Varner, 428 F.3d 492, 497-98 (3d Cir. 2005). This presumption of correctness applies to both explicit and implicit findings of fact. Campbell v. Vaughn, 209 F.3d 280, 286 (3d Cir. 2000). Consequently, a habeas petitioner "must clear a high hurdle before a federal court will set aside any of the state court's factual findings." Mastracchio v. Vose, 27'A F.3d 590, 597-98 (1st Cir. 2001).

         Like the "unreasonable application" prong of paragraph (1), a factual determination should be adjudged "unreasonable" under paragraph (2) only if the court finds that a rational jurist could not reach the same finding on the basis of the evidence in the record. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); Porter v. Horn, 276 F.Supp.2d 278, 296 (E.D. Pa. 2003); see also Torres v. Prunty, 223 F.3d 1103, 1107-08 (9th Cir. 2000); cf. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 316 (1979). "This provision essentially requires the district court to step into the shoes of an appellate tribunal, examining the record below to ascertain whether sufficient evidence existed to support the findings of fact material to the conviction." Breighner v. Chesney, 301 F.Supp.2d 354, 364 (M.D. Pa. 2004) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) and (f)[2]). Mere disagreement with an inferential leap or credibility judgment of the state court is insufficient to permit relief. Porter, 276 F.Supp.2d at 296; see also Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 408-09 (2000); Hurtado v. Tucker, 245 F.3d 7, 16 (1st Cir. 2001). Only when the finding lacks evidentiary support in the state court record or is plainly controverted by evidence therein should the federal habeas court overturn a state court's factual determination. Porter, 276 F.Supp.2d at 296; see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 408-09.

         III. Discussion

         In the instant petition, Saleem sets forth the following grounds for relief: (1) trial counsel was ineffective for advising Saleem to enter a guilty plea; (2) trial counsel was ineffective for unlawfully inducing Saleem to enter a guilty plea; (3) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to ensure that the factual basis of the plea was presented; (4) the trial judge was biased; and, (5) the Commonwealth committed a Brad[3]violation. (Doc. 1, pp. 5- 10; Doc. 17).

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

         The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). This right to effective assistance of counsel also extends to the first appeal. Lewis v. Johnson, 359 F.3d 646, 656 (3d Cir. 2004). In Strickland, the Supreme Court articulated a two-prong test in assessing whether a petitioner has been denied the effective assistance of counsel. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88. A petitioner must demonstrate: (1) that his counsel's representation "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" and (2) that such defective performance caused the petitioner prejudice. See id.

         In evaluating the first prong of the Strickland test, the court must be "highly deferential" toward counsel's conduct. Id. at 689. There is a strong presumption that counsel's conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Id. ("It is all too tempting for a defendant to second-guess counsel's assistance after conviction or adverse sentence, and it is all too easy for a court, examining counsel's defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable."). "Strickland and its progeny make clear that counsel's strategic choices will not be second-guessed by post-hoc determinations that a different trial strategy would have fared better." Rolan v. Vaughn, 445 F.3d 671, 681-82 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Strickland, 446 U.S. at 689). Notably, courts will not deem counsel ineffective for failing to raise a meritless argument. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691; United States v. Saunders, 165 F.3d 248, 253 (3d Cir. 1999).

         To satisfy the prejudice prong, the petitioner must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's deficient performance, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. Moreover, the petitioner must show that he or she had a reasonable likelihood of prevailing on the motion at issue, and having prevailed on the motion, it was also reasonably likely that the result of the trial would have been different. See Thomas v. Varner, 428 F.3d 491, 502 (3d Cir. 2005).

         To prevail on a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must satisfy both prongs of the Strickland test. Carpenter v. Vaughn, 296 F.3d 138, 149 (3d Cir. 2002). The inquiry may begin with either the deficient performance or prejudice prong, and the court is not required to consider the second prong of the test if the petitioner is unable to satisfy the first one. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

         1. Purported Coerced and Unlawfully Induced Guilty Plea

         In his first two grounds for relief, Saleem alleges that trial counsel was ineffective for advising him to enter a guilty plea, and for unlawfully inducing him to enter a guilty plea. (Doc. 1, pp. 5, 7). The Court has thoroughly reviewed the trial record and state court decisions with respect to these claims. Saleem's statements during the April 21, 2015 plea hearing clearly illustrate that he knowingly and voluntarily entered into the plea agreement and specifically accepted the terms of the agreement. At the plea hearing, the following exchange took place between the trial court and Saleem:

Q. [The Court] [l]n your case on Action Number 2014-565 Counts One, Two, Five, and Six will be dismissed. You're pleading guilty, therefore, to Counts Three and Four which are the two Counts of indecent assault. That's an open plea so you can receive any sentence up to the maximum sentence which the law permits. The Commonwealth has no objection to immediate deportation in your particular circumstance?
A. [Saleem] Yes.
Q. On Action Number 2014-1112 you're entering an open plea to the single charge set forth on that information. Do you understand that plea agreement?
A. Yes.
Q. Is that your agreement?
A. Yes.
Q. Okay. You understand the consequences of potential ...

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