Sunday, March 05, 2017

Case o' The Week: I.A.C., live post-plea: Mahrt and Post-Plea IAC Habeas claims

  Many times, a Ninth decision should force prosecutors to gulp hard and think deeply about their own practice.
  (And from time to time, a Ninth decision should force us to do the same).  
Mahrt v. Beard, 2017 WL 782447 (9th Cir. Mar. 1, 2017), decision available here.

The Honorable Judge William Fletcher
Players: Decision by Judge W. Fletcher, joined by Judges Christen and Friedland.

Facts: Neighbors to a Petaluma residence reported a male and female were “arguing over a gun.” Id. at *1. When officers responded they were met by Mahrt at the gate. Id. He was detained and questioned. Id. 
  Mahrt , and the owner of the property, told the officers that the female involved – Mahrt’s ex-girlfriend – had left the property. Id. Nonetheless, officers conducted a “protective sweep” of Mahrt’s room in the garage. Id. The cops justified the search “due to the report of the possible domestic incident and the mention of a deadly weapon” and “because Mahrt may have been attempting to conceal a victim inside.” Id. 
  No one was found inside the apartment, but ammo cans, ammo, and an apparent AR-15 were discovered. Id. at *2. Cops then learned Mahrt was a felon, obtained consent, searched again, and found guns. Id. 
  Mahrt was charged stateside. His two county PDs did not move to suppress the firearms or ammo. Id. After Mahrt’s motion for new counsel was denied, he plead open and received a six-year sentence. Id. at *3. 
  A Wende appeal was denied in state court, Mahrt – with the assistance of counsel – filed a state habeas petition (denied), and ultimately a § 2254(d) habeas in federal court. Id. ND Cal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas granted the federal petition, finding a Sixth Amendment IAC violation. 
 The State of California appealed to the Ninth. Id.

Issue(s): Were the state habeas courts unreasonable in denying the writ?

Held: “It would have been reasonable for the state courts to conclude that a motion to suppress, if brought, would have likely been denied . . . Specifically, the state courts could have reasonably have concluded that the search as justified under the ‘emergency aid’ exception to the warrant requirement.” Id. at *6.

Of Note: Can a habeas petitioner raise an IAC claim against defense counsel for failure to bring a suppression motion, when the petitioner pleaded guilty? That issue is the real heart of Mahrt – and the answer is, “yes.” Id. at *4. 
  Judge Fletcher rejects the State’s “narrow” interpretation of Tollett on the availability of habeas IAC claims after pleas. Id. As he explains, “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.” Id. at *5.
  This is great stuff for habeas folks, opening opportunities in a criminal justice system where the vast majority of criminal cases resolve in guilty pleas. 
  It is also an interesting (and sobering) reminder for trial counsel. 
  The subtext of Mahrt is that the Ninth (fairly) expects explicit discussions with our clients on the pros and cons of pretrial motions (discussions that are even better if done in writing). See id. at *2 (recounting discussions about the motion between defense counsel and Mr. Mahrt). Those discussions must happen before a guilty plea is entered -- and if a decent Fourth motion is abandoned for no good reason, that can be the basis of a later IAC claim. 
  Is the right thing by the client, and an essential step if a pleading defendant is going to make “the informed choice to which he [is] entitled.” Id. at *5.

How to Use: Mahrt’s will be misinterpreted by prosecutors, who will cite the final, AEDPA-compelled Fourth Amendment outcome. Point instead to the decision's threshold holding: “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.” Id. at *5 (emphasis added).  Judge Fletcher carefully goes through the conflicting evidence, the availability of witnesses, and the cop’s (incorrect) original search theory. Id.
   The state-deference, AEDPA-driven outcome means little for Fourth law: this was a bad search and a righteous suppression motion.
For Further Reading: Three Ninth Circuit jurists have squared-off against the President – in People’s Court.

 (Spoiler alert: the Ninth does just fine).
  For SNL’s coverage of the hearing between POTUS and Judges Canby, Friedland, and Clifton, see clip here.

Image of the Honorable Judge William Fletcher from

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender, N.D. Cal. Website at



Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home