December 22, 2014
STATE OF DELAWARE
ERIC S. TEEL Defendant.
Submitted: October 27, 2014
Upon Defendant's First Motion for Postconviction Relief.
Eric S. Teel, pro se, Wilmington, Delaware.
Zoe M. Plerhoples, Esquire, Department of Justice, 820 N. French St., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for the State.
Ferris W. Wharton, J.
This 22nd day of December, 2014, upon consideration of Defendant's First Motion for Postconviction Relief, Trial Counsel's Affidavit, Conflict Counsel's Motion to Withdraw and the transcript of the plea hearing, it appears to the Court that:
1. Defendant, Eric S. Teel, was charged with several crimes that allegedly arose from three consecutive days of domestic disputes with his paramour between July 2, 2013 and July 4, 2013 including: Second Degree Burglary, three counts of Terroristic Threatening, two counts of Harassment, Offensive Touching, Criminal Mischief and three counts of Breach of Release. On October 28, 2013, Defendant pled guilty to one count of Stalking and one count of Terroristic Threatening.
2. The transcript of the plea colloquy reflects the following: Defendant reviewed the plea agreement and Truth-in-Sentencing form with his attorney, acknowledged that he understood the documents and signed the documents; Defendant acknowledged that he would be giving up constitutional rights and civil liberties by pleading guilty and indicated that he understood that the penalty imposed could range from six months to four years; Defendant asserted that he was not being forced by anyone to plead guilty; Defendant agreed that he was satisfied with his attorney's representation; and Defendant acknowledged that he fully understood the nature of the proceedings and consequences associated with pleading guilty. Despite the revelation that Defendant was not taking his mental health medications as prescribed and had been admitted to a mental institute within the past two years, upon further questioning, the Court found that Defendant knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily entered a guilty plea.
3. On January 24, 2014, Defendant was sentenced to four years of incarceration at Level V suspended after serving three years for one year of probation at Level III with various special conditions. Defendant did not file a direct appeal. Instead, Defendant filed his first Motion for Postconviction Relief pro se on February 4, 2014. In so much as the Court can decipher and extract Defendant's arguments, the Motion set forth four claims: (1) ineffective assistance of counsel because Trial Counsel did not submit a motion to suppress or a motion to withdraw his guilty plea nor did Trial Counsel communicate with Defendant, his witnesses or victim; (2) "suppression of favorable evidence" because evidence that Defendant never stalked his victim exists and, therefore, he is not guilty; (3) "unfulfilled plea agreement" because Trial Counsel informed Defendant that Defendant would face substantial prison time and Trial Counsel would resign if Defendant refused to execute the plea agreement; and (4) "sentence exceeds the norm" because the guideline for Stalking is 0-3 years of incarceration and the applicable presumptive sentence is 18 months at Level V incarceration. Defendant alleged that the sentencing judge acted unfairly by exceeding those guidelines.
4. Conflict counsel was appointed to represent Defendant in this matter on April 17, 2014 and the matter was re-assigned to this judge on June 6, 2014. By Order dated June 23, 2014, the Court directed Trial Counsel to respond via affidavit to the claims Defendant raised in his Motion. On July 7, 2014, Trial Counsel submitted an affidavit denying all allegations as set forth.
5. In response to Defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, via sworn affidavit, Trial Counsel asserted that Defendant neither requested that Trial Counsel file any motions to suppress nor a motion to withdraw the guilty plea. Trial Counsel also stated that Defendant proffered only one person for Trial Counsel to contact and that multiple attempts to reach that person at the phone number provided were unsuccessful. Additionally, Trial Counsel claimed that he visited Defendant several times at Howard R. Young Correctional Institute between August 9, 2013 and October 28, 2013. Trial Counsel asserted that at no time did he threaten to withdraw from the case but acknowledged that he had advised Defendant that, if Defendant refused the plea offer, Defendant would face substantially more prison time if convicted of all of the charges against him.
6. In response to Defendant's other three claims, Trial Counsel contended that Defendant's claim that he was not guilty of Stalking is contradicted by Defendant's own acknowledgement that he was in direct contact with the victim, in violation of a "no contact" order and by Defendant's admission to the prosecuting attorney, via written letter, that "I know what I did was wrong and yes I intended to put fear in [the victim]." Trial Counsel also asserted that the sentence imposed was not illegal.
7. On November 17, 2014, the Court granted Conflict Counsel's Motion to Withdraw based upon his representation to the Court that Defendant's claims lack merit.
8. Before addressing the merits of Defendant's claims, the Court must apply the procedural bars set forth in Super. Ct. Crim. R. 61(i).According to the version of the Rule in force at the time that this Motion was filed, the Court rejects a motion for postconviction relief as procedurally barred if the motion is untimely or repetitive, a procedural default exists, or the claim has been formerly adjudicated.
9. Rule 61(i)(1) provides that a motion for postconviction relief is time barred when it is filed more than one year after the conviction has become final or one year after a retroactively applied right has been newly recognized by the United States Supreme Court or by the Delaware Supreme Court.
10. Rule 61(i)(2) provides that a motion is repetitive if the Defendant failed to raise a claim during a prior postconviction proceeding unless "consideration of the claim is warranted in the interest of justice."
11. Rule 61(i)(3) bars consideration of any claim "not asserted in the proceedings leading to the conviction" unless the petitioner can show "cause for relief from the procedural default" and "prejudice from violation of the movant's rights."
12. Rule 61(i)(4) provides that any claim that has been adjudicated "in the proceedings leading to the judgment of conviction, in an appeal, in a postconviction proceeding, or in a federal habeas corpus proceedings" is barred "unless reconsideration of the claim is warranted in the interest of justice."
13. If a procedural bar exists, the Court will not consider the merits of Defendant's postconviction claim unless Defendant can show that the exception found in Rule 61(i)(5) applies. Rule 61(i)(5) provides that claims barred for untimeliness, repetition and procedural default can be overcome by making out a "colorable claim that there was a miscarriage of justice because of a constitutional violation that undermined the fundamental legality, reliability, integrity or fairness of the proceedings leading to the judgment of conviction."
14. Because this is Defendant's first postconviction motion and Defendant did not raise any of his claims prior to filing his Motion, the only procedural bars that may apply to Defendant's claims are those for untimeliness and procedural default. The Court finds that Defendant's Motion, filed within a year of sentencing, is timely.
15. The Court finds that Defendant's second and fourth claims are barred for procedural default. Defendant's second claim, that there was evidence that he did not stalk his victim, was barred when Defendant knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently plead guilty to Stalking and did not challenge the plea on direct appeal. Defendant's fourth claim, that the "sentence exceeds the norm" is barred for procedural default because Defendant did not file a direct appeal. Defendant presents no justification to excuse the procedural default. Moreover, Defendant has not made out a "colorable claim" that a "miscarriage of justice" occurred with respect to the barred claims.
16. As to Defendant's third claim, to the extent that Defendant's claim is that the plea colloquy was inadequate, that issue is procedurally appropriate for direct appeal. To the extent that Defendant's third claim alleges ineffective assistance of counsel because Trial Counsel allegedly coerced Defendant into accepting the plea, that claim survives and is considered on the merits below.
17. After considering the constraints imposed by Rule 61(i), the Court will examine only Defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on the merits. To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, Defendant must satisfy the two prong test set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington. Specifically, Defendant must show that "the representation fell below an objective standard or reasonableness" and that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."
18. When examining counsel's representation of a client, "a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." To demonstrate prejudice in the context of a guilty plea, Defendant must show that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial."
19. The Court finds that Defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel fails to satisfy either prong of Strickland. Defendant alleges that trial counsel refused to suppress unspecified evidence, did not file a motion to withdraw, did not answer Defendant's letters and failed to contact Defendant's witnesses. Additionally, Defendant asserts that counsel threatened to resign if the plea offer was not accepted. Trial Counsel denies these claims. Furthermore, the plea colloquy reflects that Defendant acknowledged that he was not being forced to accept the plea offer and that he was satisfied with his attorney's representation. Absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, Defendant is bound by the representations made at the time of the colloquy. Because Defendant's representations made at the plea colloquy contradict his assertions in this Motion, the Court finds that Defendant has failed to meet the requirements under the first prong of Strickland.
20. Similarly, Defendant's claims fail to show that Defendant suffered prejudice by pleading guilty. Assuming, arguendo, that Defendant's claims demonstrate that Trial Counsel's representation fell below objectively reasonable professional standards, Defendant cannot show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have plead guilty but would have proceeded to trial. Had Defendant not plead guilty, he potentially faced charges of Second Degree Burglary, three counts of Terroristic Threatening, two counts of Harassment, Offensive Touching, Criminal Mischief and three counts of Breach of Release. Based upon the potential sentence Defendant faced, including mandatory incarceration of at least one year on the Second Degree Burglary charge, the Court cannot conclude that Defendant's guilty plea resulted in prejudice to Defendant.
Therefore, Defendant's first Motion for Post-conviction Relief is hereby DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.