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Never Say Never: The First Circuit Reverses District Court’s Denial of Section 2254 Habeas Petition and Orders Issuance of the Great Writ

The First Circuit rarely reverses, particularly in criminal cases.  You can read First Circuit opinions for months without coming across a defense-friendly opinion.  And a federal grant of a 2254 habeas petition by any court is a unicorn, in and of itself. See, e.g., Nancy J. King, Non-capital Habeas Cases after Appellate Review: An Empirical Analysis, 24 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 308, 310 (2012) (observing that, after both district and circuit court review, habeas relief was granted in only .8 percent of noncapital habeas cases).  That’s what makes the First Circuit’s decision in Rivera v. Thompson, 879 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2018) such a welcome surprise.

The facts: Rivera was in a fight with Williams and it was not going well.  Williams was much bigger than Rivera and the fight quickly became lopsided.  When fellow partygoers realized Williams was in full control and showing no signs of relenting, a group went outside to break up the fight.  Soon after, Williams keeled over on top of Rivera, and one witness said Williams remarked as he fell, “I think he [Rivera] stabbed me.”  But it happened fast and no one was willing or able to identify who stabbed Williams.  Rivera ran and a police officer saw him and ordered him to stop, but Rivera kept going.  When the officer drew his gun and told Rivera to get down, Rivera complied.  With Rivera still on the ground and the officer’s gun drawn, the officer asked Rivera a few questions, but did not issue Miranda warnings.  Rivera responded with some indirect, but inculpatory answers.  Backup arrived soon after, Rivera refused to talk further, and he was brought to the police station.

After a trial, Rivera was found guilty and sentenced to 9-10 years and 5 years of supervised release.  While his appeal was pending, he filed a motion for new trial, arguing his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to move for suppression of his inculpatory statements to the police officer.  The Massachusetts trial court denied the motion for new trial without comment or a hearing.  Rivera pressed his ineffective assistance argument on appeal.  The appellate court rejected it, stating that “it was not ineffective assistance for counsel not to move to suppress the defendant’s initial statements to the police where the questions did not constitute interrogation for purposes of Miranda warnings.” Id. at 11.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied review, and Rivera was off to federal habeas land.

Michael Brownlee is board-certified as an appellate expert by the Florida Bar.  He practices in federal appellate courts around the country and is the founding member of The Brownlee Law Firm.  To learn more visit appealattorney.com or email Mike at mbrownlee@brownleelawfirmpa.com.

The district court denied Rivera’s ineffective assistance argument, but gave him a sprinkle of hope by granting a certificate of appealability.  On review, the First Circuit began its analysis with the typical “it is impossible to win under AEDPA and it’s supposed to be impossible” language.  That’s when things get interesting.  The First Circuit’s holding was simple.  According to the panel opinion, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals’ conclusion that “the questions did not constitute interrogation for the purposes of Miranda warnings” was “clearly contrary to the Supreme Court’s definition of interrogation for Miranda purposes.”  The First Circuit relied on Rhode Island v. Innis almost exclusively for its holding.  The Rivera Court also rejected the State’s suggestion that the “Routine Booking Exception” might have explained why Rivera’s trial counsel did not move to suppress his comments.  Id. at 15-16.  Finally, in the absence of any physical evidence or conclusive eyewitness testimony regarding the identity of the stabber, the First Circuit had little trouble determining Rivera was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffectiveness.

This is a refreshing read.  The First Circuit handled AEDPA as it is meant to be handled.  Most opinions denying habeas relief perseverate over factual differences between the case sub judice and the cases the habeas petitioner relies on as clearly established.  The First Circuit avoided the typical nonsense about requiring “identical” details to a holding (Innis) which clearly applied.  We know what Innis stands for, it applied in Rivera, and the First Circuit didn’t get lost in details that don’t matter.