Nicandor Rodriguez v. Bush, Appellate No. 14-7297, 15-6716 (4th Cir, filed Nov. 23, 2016), Federal Habeas Loss b/c No Fed Right to Plea

November 29th, 2016
Elizabeth Franklin-Best

Before Rodriguez’s state criminal trial, the trial judge rejected a plea agreement between him and the Solicitor.  The judge gave no other reason other than stating he “was ready to try a case.”  Trial counsel did not object on the record.  Rodriguez’s claim is that trial counsel rendered IAC in failing to do so.  He sought federal habeas relief.

After trial, Rodriguez received a 45-year sentence.  He filed for post-conviction relief and argued that trial COURT violated his federal due process rights by not allowing him to enter the plea agreement.  He also alleged trial counsel IAC for failing to object to the rejection of the plea which kept him from raising that issue on appeal.

At the PCR hearing, trial counsel testified that Rodriguez initially rejected a 25 year offer.  On the day trial was set to begin, the State offered 20 years which he accepted.  His co-defendants were also extended plea offers which they accepted.  The judge ACCEPTED those pleas.   Back in chambers, trial counsel and the solicitor informed the judge of the plea agreement.  The judge said he “was not going to accept that plea and that he was ready to try a case this week or that week.”  Trial counsel admitted that had never happened before, and that he did not know how to handle the situation.

The PCR court found that Rodriguez failed to meet his burden to show that trial counsel should have objected to the judge’s refusal to accept the agreement, and that Rodriguez could not show prejudice.  The court also found that Rodriguez’s due process rights were not violated.

The South Carolina Supreme Court denied cert.

Rodriguez filed his federal habeas petition.

To establish that a state court unreasonably applied federal law, a petitioner must demonstrate:

 [T]hat the state court’s ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”  Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).

The Fourth Circuit makes quick work of Rodriguez’s claim by finding that the United States Supreme Court has clearly stated that there is no federal right that a plea be accepted by a judge.  Missouri v. Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399, 1410 (2012). This same proposition is repeated in Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376 (2012) (decided on the same day as Frye).  The lack of any cognizable federal right to have a judge accept a plea torpedoes Rodriguez’s claim, even though it would seem that the equities would work in his favor.  It’s hard to see how a defendant doing an extra 25 years in prison just so a judge would have something to do isn’t a constitutional violation . . . but apparently it isn’t.

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