United States District Court, Southern District of New York
June 9, 2003
FELIX NIEVES-DELGADO, PETITIONER, AGAINST THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, RESPONDENT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Laura Taylor Swain, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Pro se petitioner Felix Nieves-Delgado ("Petitioner") seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his conviction on January 11, 1996, in New York State Supreme Court, New York County. This Court has jurisdiction of this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. After a jury trial, Petitioner was convicted of Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree, Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree, and Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Seventh Degree. Petitioner was sentenced to two concurrent prison terms of nine to eighteen years and one concurrent term of one year.
The Court has considered carefully all submissions relating to this matter. Petitioner's request for a writ is denied for the following reasons.
The following facts are undisputed, except where otherwise noted.
On March 3, 1995, Detective Junior Edwards, Officer Marcos Vasquez, and Officer Edward Bennet of the Manhattan North Narcotics District were working as undercover officers. (Trial Transcript ("Tr.") at 21, 23-24, 27). They received approximately $100.00 in pre-recorded buy money from Detective Richard Ramos, who was the designated arresting officer for the undercover operation. (Id. at 24).
That afternoon, Edwards purchased $20.00 worth of heroin with the pre-recorded buy money from Petitioner at West 136th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. (Id. at 28, 29). During the trial, Edwards testified that after the purchase he radioed a description of Nieves-Delgado.wpd version 6/9/03 2 the Petitioner to Ramos, the arresting officer. (Id. at 25, 30). Ramos testified that he was in an unmarked car on Amsterdam Avenue and West 133rd Street and that, after hearing Edwards' description, he responded to Amsterdam Avenue and 136th Street. (Id. at 57, 59-61). Ramos approached Petitioner, identified himself, and placed Petitioner under arrest.
After arrest, Ramos searched Petitioner and found $970.00, including $20.00 of the pre-recorded buy money and twenty-one glassine bags of heroin in Petitioner's possession. (Id. at 64-65, 68). Three bags found on the ground near Petitioner also contained heroin. (Id. at 65). A dollar bill containing cocaine was also in Petitioner's possession at the time of arrest. (Id.). Detective Edwards identified Petitioner as the man who sold him the drugs. (Id. at 33).
At a pre-trial Sandoval hearing,*fn1 the trial court held that if Petitioner testified in his own defense, the prosecution would be allowed to question him regarding his prior convictions in order to impeach his testimony, specifically Petitioner's 1988 conviction for attempted sale of a controlled substance, as well as Petitioner's two felony convictions in 1989, although evidence of the nature of those felonies would not be admissible.*fn2 (Hearing Transcript ("Hr'g Tr.") at 3). The defense objected to this ruling. (Id. at 4). The trial judge also precluded the prosecution from questioning Petitioner regarding an arrest that took place on January 6, 1989, the disposition of which is unknown. (Id.).
Petitioner did not testify during the trial.
Petitioner was sentenced on January 11, 1996. On February 9, 1996, Petitioner filed a timely notice of appeal with the Appellate Division, arguing that he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court had erred in its Sandoval ruling and that the sentences imposed were excessive. On December 1, 1998, the Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's conviction, but modified Petitioner's sentence, which it found excessive, to two concurrent sentences of six to twelve years and one concurrent term of one year. People v. Nieves, 682 N.Y.S.2d 22 (1998). It also found that the Sandoval ruling "properly permitted the prosecution to question defendant about the fact that he was convicted of selling drugs in 1988 despite the similarity of this conviction to the crime charged in this case." Id. Petitioner next applied for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals of New York, which, on February 15, 1999, found no question of law which ought to be reviewed and denied permission to appeal. People v. Nieves, 93 N.Y.2d 855 (1999). Petitioner's January 24, 2000 petition for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the trial court's Sandoval ruling violated his constitutional due process rights,*fn3 was filed timely pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") modified 28 U.S.C. § 2254 to increase restrictions on federal courts in reviewing writs of habeas corpus for state prisoners. Woodford v. Garceau, 123 S.Ct. 1398 (2003). AEDPA requires that the petitioner exhaust all state remedies before applying to the federal court for a writ. 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254(b) (West 1994 & Supp. 2002). In his applications to the Appellate Division and the New York State Court of Appeals, Petitioner raised his claim that the Sandoval hearing improperly allowed the prosecution to question him regarding his prior convictions in violation of his constitutional right to due process. Petitioner thus has exhausted all state appeals on this issue, as of the February 15, 1999 denial of leave to appeal from the New York Court of Appeals.
"[F]ederal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law," and federal courts should not reexamine state court determinations. Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1990); see also Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 68 (1991). The issue addressed directly by the Sandoval ruling was evidentiary in nature, and state court rulings on evidentiary matters, even when erroneous, generally do not reach constitutional magnitude. Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-68; Roberts v. Scully, 875 F. Supp. 182, 189 (S.D.N.Y. 1995), aff'd, 71 F.3d 406 (2d Cir. 1995). Petitioner contends, however, that the Sandoval ruling resulted in a trial which violated his constitutionally guaranteed due process rights.
It is well settled that, "to raise and preserve for review the claim of improper impeachment with a prior conviction, a defendant must testify." Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 43 (1984). Petitioner here did not take the stand in his own defense. Although Luce involved a review of a federal trial court's in limine ruling pursuant to Rule 609(a) of the Federal Rules of Evidence, its principles are equally applicable to Petitioner's challenge to the state court's Sandoval ruling, since both procedures involve a pre-trial hearing on the admissibility of Nieves-Delgado.wpd version 6/9/03 5 a defendant's prior convictions for impeachment purposes, and both procedures involve a weighing of the prejudicial impact of the convictions against the interest in impeachment of testimony. In decisions affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, other district courts have applied the Luce decision to Sandoval claims, finding a defendant must testify to preserve the issue of admissibility of prior convictions, as any harm from the evidentiary ruling is purely speculative in the absence of defendant's testimony. See, for example, Carroll v. Hoke, 695 F. Supp. 1435, 1439-40 (E.D.N.Y. 1988), aff'd, 880 F.2d 1381 (2d Cir. 1989); Underwood v. Kelly, 692 F. Supp. 146, 151 (E.D.N.Y. 1988) aff'd, 875 F.2d 857 (2d Cir. 1989); McEachin v. Ross, 951 F. Supp. 478, 481 (S. D.N.Y. 1997). "Second Circuit law has created a bright-line rule . . . barring habeas relief for allegedly erroneous Sandoval rulings in instances where a defendant elects not testify." Shannon v. Senkowski, 2000 WL 1683448, *7 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 9, 2000).
Even if Petitioner had properly preserved the Sandoval issue for federal habeas review, relief would not be appropriate. AEDPA prohibits a federal court from granting a writ of habeas corpus with respect to any claim adjudicated in state court, unless 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 "resulted in a decision based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence." 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254(d)(1)-(2) (West 1994 & Supp. 2002). Here, the state court ruling on Petitioner's Sandoval claim was not contrary to federal law, as it neither "arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law" nor "confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at [the opposite result]." Lainfiesta v. Artuz, 253 F.3d 151, 155 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000)). In order to grant a writ of habeas corpus, the Court would therefore have to find that the Sandoval ruling involved an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence. For a state court unreasonably to apply federal law, it is not enough that the decision be incorrect or erroneous; it must "reflect some additional increment of incorrectness such that it may be said to be unreasonable." Id. (quoting Francis S. v. Stone, 221 F.3d 100, 111 (2d Cir. 2000)).
Not only has Petitioner failed to demonstrate that the state court applied federal law unreasonably, Petitioner has failed to show that the trial judge abused his broad discretion in the Sandoval ruling. The trial judge is given broad discretion to determine what evidence should be admissible in balancing the interest of the People in impeaching the defendant's testimony with the risk of unfairly prejudicing the defendant. Domingo v. Greiner, 2002 WL 362761 (S.D.N.Y. March 5, 2002); Walker, 83 N.Y.2d 458-59. The record reflects that the trial court weighed these interests. Of Petitioner's three prior convictions, all of which were for prior similar crimes, the trial judge only admitted the substance of one. The judge thus did not abuse his broad discretion. See People v. Shields, 46 N.Y.2d 649 (1978) (upholding Sandoval ruling admitting prior conviction of assault with intent to commit rape, where defendant was on trial for rape.); People v. Perez, 246 A.D.2d 335 (1998) (upholding Sandoval ruling admitting limited inquiry into drug-related nature of two of defendant's numerous drug-related convictions, where defendant was on trial for criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree.).
No constitutional issue is presented, and the petition is denied.
For the reasons set forth above, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied. The Petitioner may not appeal this order unless "a circuit justice or judge issues a certificate of appealability." 28 U.S.C.A. § 2253(c)(1). A certificate will be granted "only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right." 28 U.S.C.A. 2253(c)(2); see generally United States v. Perez, 129 F.3d 255, 259-60 (2d Cir. 1997) (discussing the standard for issuing a certificate of appealability). The Court finds that Petitioner will not be able to sustain this burden. Thus, the Court declines to issue a certificate of appeal. Further, the Court certifies pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) that any appeal from this order would not be taken in good faith. See Coppedge v. United States, 369 U.S. 438, 444 (1962)