CA9: States court’s rationale for rejecting 4A claim subject to “unreasonable application” clause of § 2254(d)(1) on habeas

On federal habeas, the state court’s determination that defense counsel was reasonable in not filing a motion to suppress was subject to the “unreasonable application” clause of § 2254(d)(1). The state court’s denials were not an unreasonable application of the merits of the Fourth Amendment claim. The officer spoke of the wrong exception to the warrant requirement, but that doesn’t mean that the emergency aid exception could also have applied in single sentence denials of relief. The facts support such a conclusion. On habeas the mere chance of success of the motion to suppress isn’t enough. Mahrt v. Beard, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 3696 (9th Cir. March 1, 2017):

Consistent with this interpretation of the Tollett exception, many courts, including the Supreme Court, have analyzed on the merits a habeas petitioner’s allegation that his counsel rendered pre-plea ineffective assistance by failing to file a motion to suppress. See Premo v. Moore, 562 U.S. 115, 123-32 (2011); Arvelo v. Sec’y, Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 788 F.3d 1345, 1348-50 (11th Cir. 2015); Lynch v. Sec’y, Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 776 F.3d 1209, 1219-20 (11th Cir. 2015); Gilbert v. Merchant, 488 F.3d 780, 790-95 (7th Cir. 2007); Weaver v. Palmateer, 455 F.3d 958, 972 (9th Cir. 2006); Ward v. Dretke, 420 F.3d 479, 487-90 (5th Cir. 2005); Langford v. Day, 110 F.3d 1380, 1387 (9th Cir. 1996); Hale v. Lockhart, 903 F.2d 545, 550 (8th Cir. 1990); Adcox v. O’Brien, 899 F.2d 735, 737 (8th Cir. 1990).

Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, premised upon a failure to file a motion to suppress, is squarely within this line of cases. The State’s entire case against Mahrt depended on its ability to introduce into evidence the firearms and ammunition found in his room. If the deputies unconstitutionally searched Mahrt’s home, counsel’s failure to move to suppress the fruits of that search prevented Mahrt from making the informed choice to which he was entitled. We therefore conclude that Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim is allowed under Tollett.

B. “Unreasonable Application”

An ineffective assistance of counsel claim entails a two-prong inquiry. “First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was deficient.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). “Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Id. If the defendant has pleaded guilty, “in order to satisfy the ‘prejudice’ requirement, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985).

We conclude that trial counsel should have moved to suppress the firearms and ammunition. There was at least a chance that such a motion would have succeeded. First, there was a clear conflict in the available evidence. Deputy Yoder’s written report tells one story. Mahrt’s sworn declaration, supplemented by the sworn declaration of Robyn Ryan, tells another. Both of those declarations were presented to the California courts by Mahrt’s habeas counsel. The same evidence — in the form of declarations or live testimony — would undoubtedly have been available to Mahrt’s trial counsel had he or she sought to obtain it. According to Mahrt and Robyn Ryan, the deputies were told before they searched Mahrt’s room that Tracy Ryan had left the area. The deputies then searched Mahrt’s room over his objection. According to Mahrt, there was one extensive search of his room, to which he unambiguously objected, rather than, as recounted by Deputy Yoder, a preliminary sweep, followed by consent by Mahrt to a further search, followed by an extensive search.

Second, Deputy Yoder’s report mischaracterized the first search (if indeed it was a first search rather than a single search) as a “protective sweep.” A warrantless protective search is permitted under Maryland v. Buie, based on the “interest of the officers in taking steps to assure themselves that the house in which a suspect is being, or has just been, arrested is not harboring other persons who are dangerous and who could unexpectedly launch an attack.” 494 U.S. 325, 333 (1990). Mahrt was being detained by the deputies, and they had no reason to suspect that there was some other person who could pose a danger to themselves or to others.

We nonetheless conclude that the state habeas courts were not unreasonable in denying the writ. We have nothing but one-sentence denials from the Court of Appeal and from the Supreme Court, so we are obliged to supply the reasons those courts could have had for their denials. Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. It would have been reasonable for the state courts to conclude that a motion to suppress, if brought, would likely have been denied. This is so even if Mahrt’s evidence is believed, and even in light of Deputy Yoder’s statement that the search was a “protective sweep.” We do not regard Yoder’s improper use of this legal term, which has a specific and relatively narrow meaning, as preventing the state courts from relying on some other basis to justify the search. Specifically, the state courts could reasonably have concluded that the search was justified under the “emergency aid” exception to the warrant requirement. See Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 47 (2009) (per curiam).

Deputy Yoder stated in his report that “[b]ased on [Mahrt's] behavior, I felt he may be attempting to conceal a victim inside.” Although warrantless searches of the home are “presumptively unreasonable,” Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 40 (2001), law enforcement officers “may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 47 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). To invoke this “emergency aid” exception, an officer must have an objectively reasonable basis for believing both that a person is inside the house and that the person is in need of immediate aid. See id.; United States v. Martinez, 406 F.3d 1160, 1164 (9th Cir. 2005).

Yoder and the other deputies were not obliged to believe Mahrt and Robyn Ryan when they said that Tracy Ryan had left the area. The officers “were not conducting a trial, but were required to make an on-the-spot decision as to whether [the potential victim] could be in the apartment in need of medical help.” United States v. Black, 482 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2007). “[H]ad they not investigated and [the victim] was in fact in the apartment[,]” the officers would likely have been “harshly criticized” by their superiors. Id.; see also Martinez, 406 F.3d at 1164 (emphasizing “[t]he volatility of situations involving domestic violence”). It thus would not have been unreasonable for the state courts to regard the possibility of a victim inside Mahrt’s room as an exigent circumstance justifying the warrantless search of the room. See, e.g., Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392 (1978).

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