United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS OF UNITED STATES
Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.
April 16, 2018, Petitioner George William Crooks filed this
action under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Crooks is a state
prisoner proceeding pro se. Mr. Crooks alleges he was
illegally sentenced to a 30-year custodial sentence, with 20
of the years suspended, out of Montana's Twenty-First
Judicial District, Ravalli County. (Doc. 1 at 1-2). For the
reasons set forth below, Mr. Crooks' petition should be
September 8, 2016, pursuant to a plea agreement, Crooks
entered guilty plea to felony Driving Under the Influence;
Crooks was also designated as a Persistent Felony Offender.
On February 16, 2017, the trial court accepted the written
plea agreement and imposed sentence. Crooks did not file a
then attempted to file a federal habeas petition in this
Court, challenging the Ravalli County judgment, but the
petition was dismissed without prejudice as unexhausted.
See Crooks v. State, CV-17-144-M-DLC, Judg. (entered
Nov. 14, 2017). Crooks then returned to the state courts and
petitioned the Montana Supreme Court for habeas relief.
See Crooks v. Salmonsen, OP 18-0096, Pet. (filed
February 12, 2018).
Crooks argued that he was improperly sentenced because the
trial court failed to follow and sentence Crooks under Mont.
Code Ann. § 46-18-201(3)(a)(iv)(A), which Crooks
asserted would have required the trial court to suspend all
but the first five years of his sentence. Id. at
2-3. The Montana Supreme Court denied Crooks relief and
pointed out that he was not sentenced under M.C.A. §
46-18-201, but rather pursuant to the framework of the
Montana Persistent Felony Offender statutes at M.C.A. §
46-18-501, et. seq. Crooks v. Salmonsen, OP 18-0096,
Or. at 2 (Mont. Feb. 27, 2018). Further, the Court determined
Crooks received a lawful sentence and that the trial court
identified its reasons for the length of the custodial
sentence by referencing, “Crook's criminal history
of twenty-three various offenses, including eleven DUI's
dating back to 1984, his alcohol abuse disorder, and
‘the opportunity to address and correct any alcohol and
chemical dependency issues he has.'” Id.
Additionally, the Court distinguished Crooks' situation
from the cases upon which he relied, State v.
Southwick, 2007 MT 257, 339 Mont. 281, 169 P.3d 698, and
State v. Deserly, 2008 MT 242, 334 Mont. 468, 188
P.3d 1057, as neither of those matters involved a persistent
felony offender designation or sentence. Id. Because
Crooks failed to meet his burden of establishing a prima
facie case of receiving an illegal sentence, the Court denied
present matter, Crooks advances a slightly different argument
than he raised with the state court. Crooks now claims that
the Montana Supreme Court erred in denying him relief,
because it incorrectly identified him as a
“2nd” persistent felony offender when,
in reality, he should have been designated and treated as a
first-time persistent felony offender. (Doc. 1 at 2). Crooks
then argues that because of this misidentification, the
Court's analysis and citation to M.C.A. §
46-18-502(2)-(3) was incorrect. Id. Crooks asks this
Court to reverse the judgment and remand back to the state
court, presumably for resentencing and imposition of a
five-year custodial sentence. Id. at 3.
Montana law in place at the time of Crooks' Ravalli
County sentencing, a persistent felony offender was an
offender who had been previously convicted of a felony and
was being sentenced for a second felony, if the prior felony
conviction happened within five years' time. MCA §
46-18-502 (2015).The prosecution is required to give notice
of its intent to seek persistent felony offender status and
of the prior conviction(s) supporting such designation.
§ 46-13-108(2), MCA.
person designated as a persistent felony offender is subject
to the enhanced sentencing provisions outlined at §
46-18-502, MCA. A persistent felony offender “shall be
imprisoned in the state prison for a term of not less than 5
years or more than 100 years…” §
46-18-502(1). An individual who has previously been
designated as a persistent felony offender at the time of
conviction on the subsequent offense “shall be
imprisoned in a state prison for a term of not less than 10
years or more than 100 years…” §
46-18-502(1). It appears the predicate offense for
Crooks' 2015 persistent felony offender designation was a
2011 felony DUI conviction out of Montana's Sixteenth
Judicial District, Powder River County. Crooks maintains
that aside from the most recent Ravalli County conviction, he
was never previously designated as a persistent felony
argues that because the Montana Supreme Court applied the
subsection of the statute applicable to repeat persistent
felony offenders, it erred when finding his sentence lawful,
because it referenced the 10-year mandatory minimum
sentencing requirement of MCA § 46-18-502(2). While
Crooks is correct that the Montana Supreme Court in its
opinion cited the statute's sub-section that may not have
been applicable to Crooks, it is without question that the
ten-year custodial sentence he received was well within the
lawful sentencing range applicable to first-time persistent
felony offenders. If Crooks is, in fact, a first time
persistent felony offender, he could have received a sentence
anywhere between 5 and 100 years for the Ravalli County
conviction. See, MCA § 46-18-502(1).
Crooks seeks redress based upon a purported state law
violation, but a petitioner cannot obtain federal habeas
relief in this context. See Nunes v. Ramirez-Palmer,
485 F.3d 432, 443 (9th Cir. 2007). Neither this Court nor the
United States Supreme Court may question the Montana Supreme
Court's interpretation of Montana law. See, e.g.,
Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991)
("Today we reemphasize that it is not the province of a
federal habeas court to reexamine state court determinations
on state law questions."); Wisconsin v.
Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476, 483 (1993) ("There is no
doubt that we are bound by a state court's construction
of a state statute.").
even if the Montana Supreme Court inadvertently cited the
wrong subsection of the persistent felony offender statute,
Crooks has not demonstrated that the sentence, to which he
apparently agreed in a written plea agreement, is unlawful.
Again, even assuming there was a state law error, Crooks
cannot obtain relief for such error in this Court. A federal
court can grant habeas relief only if the petitioner has
demonstrated that the state court violated the United States