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Delacruz v. State

Supreme Court of Montana

July 10, 2018

JUSTIN WESLEY DELACRUZ, Petitioner and Appellant,
v.
STATE OF MONTANA, Respondent and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: May 9, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DC 14-0563 Honorable Mary Jane Knisely, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Justin Wesley Delacruz, self-represented, Shelby, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, C. Mark Fowler, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Scott D. Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, Ed Zink, Deputy County Attorney, Billings, Montana

          OPINION

          DIRK SANDEFUR JUSTICE

         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Justin Delacruz appeals the dismissal of his petition for postconviction relief by the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County. We affirm.

         ¶3 On July 6, 2014, at about 8:15 a.m., Delacruz fired a handgun at a young employee of the Sonic Restaurant in downtown Billings, in the presence of numerous witnesses. The Billings Police responded quickly and a gunfight ensued, leaving one person injured and many others terrorized. Arrested at the scene, Delacruz was subsequently charged with five felony counts: robbery (§ 45-5-401(1)(b), MCA), criminal endangerment (§ 45-5-207, MCA), possession of dangerous drugs (§ 45-9-102, MCA), and two counts of attempted deliberate homicide (§§ 45-4-103 and 45-5-102(1)(a), MCA), with additional sentence for use of a dangerous weapon (§ 46-18-211, MCA).

         ¶4 On October 22, 2014, Delacruz changed his plea to guilty on all counts pursuant to a plea agreement, which contained a joint recommendation for a 55-year sentence to the Montana State Prison. The terms of the agreement allowed Delacruz to withdraw his guilty plea if the District Court did not follow the agreement's sentencing recommendation. Prior to accepting the change of plea, the District Court engaged Delacruz in a colloquy to ascertain that he was satisfied with his attorney's representation and that he was entering his guilty pleas voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. The District Court sentenced Delacruz in accordance with the joint recommendation, and Delacruz did not appeal his conviction.

         ¶5 On April 15, 2016, Delacruz timely filed a petition for postconviction relief (PCR) and memorandum in support, which claimed that he had involuntarily entered guilty pleas due to defense counsel's coercion and failure to effectively bargain for a better deal from the prosecution. The District Court denied Delacruz's motion to withdraw his guilty plea on May 26, 2016, holding that Delacruz completely failed to support his argument with any objective evidence of coercion, misrepresentation, bribe, or other misconduct on the part of trial counsel. However, the court ordered the State to respond to Delacruz's other allegations of ineffective assistance and, on June 9, 2016, issued a Gillham[1] order directing defense counsel to address Delacruz's various assertions of error.

         ¶6 Upon consideration of Delacruz's petition, defense counsel's affidavit, and the State's response, the District Court ultimately dismissed the petition without a hearing on the grounds that Delacruz's conclusory assertions of deficit performance by defense counsel failed to provide sufficient evidentiary support to sustain a postconviction claim.

         ¶7 This Court reviews a district court's denial of a postconviction petition to determine whether the court's findings of fact are clearly erroneous and whether its conclusions of law are correct. Hamilton v. State, 2010 MT 25, ¶ 7, 355 Mont. 133, 226 P.3d 588. We review a district court's decision regarding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing in a postconviction proceeding for an abuse of discretion. Herman v. State, 2006 MT 7, ¶ 13, 330 Mont. 267, 127 P.3d 422. This Court reviews de novo mixed questions of law and fact presented by claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Heath v. State, 2009 MT 7, ¶ 13, 348 Mont. 361, 202 P.3d 118.

         ¶8 In assessing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, this Court applies the two- prong test from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052 (1984). The petitioner must show that counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant by depriving him of a fair trial. Hamilton, ¶ 12. Under the first prong, the question is "whether counsel's conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness measured under prevailing professional norms and in light of the surrounding circumstances." Whitlow v. State, 2008 MT 140, ¶ 20, 343 Mont. 90, 183 P.3d 861. The petitioner bears "a heavy burden" to overcome the presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of sound trial strategy based on objectively reasonable professional norms. Whitlow, ¶ 21; see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689, 104 S.Ct. at 2065. Under the second prong, the petitioner must show that a reasonable probability exists that the trial result would have been different but for counsel's error. Hamilton, ¶ 12.

         ¶9 A petition for postconviction relief must "identify all facts supporting the [asserted] grounds for relief . . . and have attached affidavits, records, or other evidence establishing the existence of those facts." Section 46-21-104(1)(c), MCA. The petition must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the facts justify the relief. Hamilton, ¶ 10 (citing Heath, ¶ 16). The petition must "be accompanied by a supporting memorandum including appropriate arguments and citations and discussions of authorities." Section 46-21-104(2), MCA. "Mere conclusory allegations are insufficient to support the petition." Hamilton, ¶ 10 (quoting Beach v. State, 2009 MT 398, ¶ 16, 353 Mont. 411, 220 P.3d 667). The district court may deny a petition on the pleadings for ...


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