United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
SAMUEL F. SOKOLOWSKI
HOWARD PRINCE, WARDEN, SECTION
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MICHAEL B. NORTH, Magistrate Judge.
This matter was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to conduct a hearing, including an evidentiary hearing, if necessary, and to submit proposed findings and recommendations for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and (C), and as applicable, Rule 8(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts. Upon review of the entire record, the Court has determined that this matter can be disposed of without an evidentiary hearing. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2). For the following reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the petition for habeas corpus relief be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
I. Procedural and Factual History
Petitioner, Samuel Sokolowski, appearing through counsel, is a state prisoner incarcerated in Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. On October 14, 2008, Sokolowski was charged by bill of information with aggravated incest pursuant to Louisiana Revised Statute 14:78.1. On October 23, 2008, Sokolowski initially pleaded not guilty, and the court set trial for January 12, 2009. The case ultimately did not proceed to trial, as Sokolowski entered a plea of guilty on January 16, 2009.
On February 9, 2010, Sokolowski timely filed an application for post-conviction relief in the Twenty-Second Judicial District Court, Parish of St. Tammany. In his application, he asserted three claims: (1) the facts of his crime do not fit within the ambit of Louisiana Revised Statute 14:78.1; (2) ineffective assistance of counsel; and (3) urging for the reinstatement of the right to direct appeal and review of claim number one. On April 20, 2010, the state district court denied his application. In its "Reasons for Judgment and Judgment, " the state district court explained that in pleading guilty Sokolowski "clearly admitted the facts which constituted the elements of aggravated incest." Furthermore, the state district court found that Sokolowski had failed to meet his burden of proving ineffective assistance of counsel and that he understood his rights and had voluntarily entered the guilty plea. On May 21, 2010, Sokolowski filed a Notice of Intent to seek supervisory writs to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals. On the same day he also filed a Motion to compel answer to claim three, regarding his request for an out of time appeal contained in his original post-conviction relief application. On September 20, 2010, the state district court denied this motion, noting that Sokolowski was not entitled to appeal or seek review of his sentence, which was imposed in conformity with his plea agreement. The state district court further explained that as part of the plea bargain, Sokolowski was charged with only one count under the statute, although the bill of information indicated that the date of offense was between December 1, 2006 and December 31, 2007, and thus the State could have charged him with multiple counts. Furthermore, the court rejected Sokolowski's argument that his actual conduct did not fit the elements of the crime charged, noting that the Louisiana First Circuit case he relied on to make this argument had been reversed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, and reiterating that he had admitted the facts that constituted the crime when he pleaded guilty.
On October 19, 2012, Sokolowksi filed a Motion for Rehearing along with affidavits asserting that the attorney he had hired to appeal the denial of his post-conviction application had inadvertently (through alleged clerical error) failed to enroll as counsel and had failed to request an extension on the return date for his writ to the First Circuit. The district court held a hearing on the matter on January 24, 2013, and thereafter denied the motion. Sokolowski then filed a writ application seeking review in the First Circuit Court of Appeal on May 9, 2013. On July 15, 2013, the First Circuit declined to consider the writ, citing the Uniform Rules of Louisiana Courts of Appeal, Rules 2-13 and 4-13. The Louisiana Supreme Court subsequently denied Sokolowski's related writ application without reasons on November 22, 2013.
On or about December 13, 2013, Sokolowski filed his federal petition for habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. On January 16, 2014, his case was transferred to this Court. In his federal petition, Sokolowski raises three claims: (1) his post-conviction counsel actively misled and intentionally deceived him by reassuring him that his writ application had been filed in the First Circuit, while in reality counsel had abandoned Sokolowski's case, thereby causing procedural default and prejudice for which he is entitled to equitable tolling; (2) Sokolowski's conduct did not substantiate his conviction and imprisonment in 2009 under the definition of La. R.S. 14:78.1, until the Louisiana Supreme Court's judicial enlargement of the statute in State v. Ardoin, 35 So.3d 1065 (2010), thereby rendering Sokolowki's conviction and imprisonment in violation of the Due Process Clause and Bouie v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 347 (1964); and (3) ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The State filed a response arguing that the petition is untimely under the AEDPA, that Sokolowski is not entitled to equitable tolling, and that he has failed to properly exhaust his claims in state court. The State further argues that the claims, if considered, must fail on the merits.
II. Standards of Review
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") comprehensively overhauled federal habeas corpus legislation, including 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The threshold questions on habeas review under the amended statute are whether the petition is timely and whether the claims raised by the petitioner were adjudicated on the merits in a state court, i.e., the petitioner must have exhausted state court remedies and must not be in "procedural default" on a claim. Nobles v. Johnson, 127 F.3d 409, 419-20 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (b), (c)). In this case, as noted above, the State has raised both timeliness and exhaustion defenses.
A. Statute of Limitations and Equitable Tolling
Under the AEDPA, a petitioner must bring his Section 2254 petition within one year of the date his conviction became final. Sokolowski pleaded guilty on January 16, 2009 and therefore his conviction became final on February 16, 2009, when his thirty-day period for filing an appeal expired.
The State suggests Sokolowski's petition is untimely for a number of reasons. However, the Court need not resolve the timeliness issue-which is rather murky, given the facts and arguments related to equitable tolling-because, as the State alternatively argues, relief is not warranted even if the application is timely. Similarly, a district court may, in its discretion, deny relief on the merits regardless of whether or not the claims have been fully exhausted. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2); Jones v. Jones, 163 F.3d 285, 299 (5th Cir. 1999). Accordingly, this Court also declines to address the State's arguments regarding exhaustion, turning instead to the merits.
B. Merits Review
The AEDPA standard of review is governed by § 2254(d) and the Supreme Court's decision in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). Subsections 2254(d) (1) and (2) contain revised standards of review for pure questions of fact, pure questions of law, and mixed questions of both. The AEDPA "modified a federal habeas court's role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas retrials' and to ensure that ...