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Thaut v. Attorney General of State of Montana

United States District Court, D. Montana, Helena Division

March 13, 2017

GARY THAUT, Petitioner,


          Dana L. Christensen, Chief Judge.

         United States Magistrate Judge John T. Johnston entered findings and recommendations in this matter on November 29, 2016, recommending dismissal of Petitioner Gary Thaut's ("Thaut") petition for writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Thaut filed objections to the findings and recommendations on January 19, 2017, and so is entitled to de novo review of those findings and recommendations to which he specifically objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). This Court reviews for clear error those findings and recommendations to which no party objects. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Commodore Bus. Mach., Inc., 656 F.2d 1309, 1313 (9th Cir. 1981); Thomas v. Am, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985). "Clear error exists if the Court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." United States v. Syrax, 235 F.3d 422, 427 (9th Cir. 2000).

         Thaut raised three claims in his amended habeas petition that were addressed in detail and on the merits in Judge Johnston's findings and recommendations.[1] Having reviewed Thaut's objections, the Court finds that he makes three specific contentions to the findings and recommendations. The Court will address each issue separately.

         I. Lack of Meaningful Appeal

         Thaut objects to Judge Johnston's recommendation that his first claim is without merit and should be denied. Thaut argues that Montana's appeal and postconviction process denied him a meaningful appeal. (Doc. 49 at 3-4.) Judge Johnston correctly concluded that Thaut's due process claim arguing deficiencies in his state law proceedings is without merit. (Doc. 42 at 10-11.)

         Federal habeas relief is not available for "attacks on violations of state law or procedure and is unavailable for alleged error in the interpretation or application of state law." Fuller v. Roe, 182 F.3d 699, 703 (9th Cir. 1999), overruled on other grounds. To the extent that Thaut alleges errors in the state post-conviction review process, those are not addressable through habeas corpus proceedings. Franzen v. Brinkman, 877 F.2d 26, 26 (9th Cir. 1989). A federal habeas petition is not the proper vehicle for addressing the adequacy of the process provided to Thaut in his state appeal or post-conviction proceedings.

         Next, Thaut argues that his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated because his appellate counsel withdrew her representation by virtue of an Anders brief. (Doc. 49 at 7.) This Court disagrees. The State of Montana provides court appointed counsel for an indigent defendant on his direct appeal. Mont. Code Ann. § 47-1-104 (2016). Thaut was appointed counsel for his direct appeal. Thaut's counsel then filed an Anders brief with the Montana Supreme Court asserting there were no nonfriviolous claims. (Doc. 42 at 2-3.) Upon independent review of the record, the Montana Supreme Court agreed and granted counsel's Anders brief. State v. Thaut, Cause No. DA 12-0458, (Feb. 27, 2013). Filing an Anders brief is a constitutionally permissible method to withdraw court appointed appellate counsel. Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738, 744 (1967).

         This Court does not find that Thaut was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel simply because his counsel filed an Anders brief. Thaut argues that the filing of the Anders brief without further development of the record deprived him of counsel because he was then forced to develop the record pro se in his post-conviction proceedings. Although the filing of an Anders brief forced Thaut to continue pro se, he was still provided appellate counsel at the outset of his direct appeal as required by state law. To the extent that Thaut argues the Anders brief was deficient because the record should have been developed further, this Court stands by the Montana Supreme Court's finding that the record contained no nonfriviolous claims.

         Finally, Thaut argues that a Sixth Amendment violation occurred because he should have been appointed counsel during his post-conviction relief proceeding. (Doc. 49 at 5.) A habeas corpus petition may be entertained on behalf of a person "on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Prisoners do not "have a constitutional right to counsel when mounting collateral attacks upon their convictions." Pennslyvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 555 (1990). Thaut does not have a constitutional right to counsel in his post-conviction relief proceeding and therefore no constitutional Sixth Amendment violation occurred. Additionally, appointment of counsel in a post-conviction proceeding is at the discretion of the state district court; therefore, this argument is not proper in a habeas petition because it is an attack on state court procedure. His contentions here are not in violation of due process and are without merit.

         II. Deferential Review of Claims 2, 3, 4, and 5

         Next, Thaut objects to the Judge Johnston's deferential review based on the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") because the state court proceedings were "unreasonable and void of factual development." (Doc. 49 at 12.) Judge Johnston found that Thaut "failed to establish that the state courts' decisions on the merit were unreasonable." (Doc. 42 at 14.) Judge Johnston properly gave deference to the state court proceedings as required under the AEDPA.

         If a state court has already adjudicated a petitioner's claims on the merits, a federal court will not grant the writ unless the state court's adjudication of the claims "resulted in a decision that 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 that 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)(1)-(2). The "AEDPA imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings and demands that they be given the benefit of the doubt." Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 767 (2010) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         To warrant habeas relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must demonstrate that, considering all of the circumstances, counsel's performance was deficient and that such performance prejudiced his defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Because both prongs of the Strickland test must be satisfied in order to establish a constitutional violation, failure to satisfy either prong requires that a petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim be denied. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697; Hein v. Sullivan, 601 F.3d 897, 918 (9th Cir. 2010).

         Thaut contends that the state court proceedings were unreasonable because his appellate counsel failed to properly review and develop the record. (Doc. 49 at 13.) This Court will not address Thaut's arguments to ...

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