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Senkbeil v. Douma

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

January 24, 2017

SHAWN J. SENKBEIL, Petitioner,
v.
TIMOTHY DOUMA, Warden, New Lisbon Correctional Institution, Respondent.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          LYNN ADELMAN District Judge

         Shawn Senkbeil, who is incarcerated at New Lisbon Correctional Institution pursuant to a judgment of a Wisconsin court, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The respondent has moved to dismiss the petition on two grounds: that it does not present a cognizable federal claim, and that any federal claim it might present has been procedurally defaulted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2013, the petitioner was charged with first-degree sexual assault of a child under sixteen by use or threat of force or violence. This offense was punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years' initial confinement. On September 11, 2013, the petitioner entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge, second-degree sexual assault of a child, which did not carry a mandatory minimum. The plea took the form of an “Alford plea, ” in which the petitioner pleaded guilty but did not admit that he was guilty. See North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). The state trial court in Sheboygan County accepted the plea and found the petitioner guilty.

         About two weeks later, and prior to sentencing, the petitioner moved to withdraw his plea. Under Wisconsin law, a trial court should allow a defendant to withdraw a plea prior to sentencing for any “fair and just reason, ” so long as the prosecution will not be substantially prejudiced. State v. Bollig, 232 Wis.2d 561, 577 (2000). “Fair and just” means some adequate reason for the defendant's change of heart other than the desire to have a trial or belated misgivings about the plea. State v. Jenkins, 303 Wis.2d 157, 177 (2007). Acceptable reasons include a genuine misunderstanding of the consequences of the plea, haste and confusion in entering the plea, coercion by trial counsel, and an assertion of innocence. State v. Shanks, 152 Wis.2d 284, 290 (Ct. App. 1989). However, “an assertion of innocence and a prompt motion to withdraw are not in themselves fair and just reasons for a plea withdrawal, but are factors that bear on whether the defendant's proferred reason of misunderstanding, confusion or coercion are credible.” State v. Shimek, 230 Wis.2d 730, 740 n.2 (Ct. App. 1999).

         In support of his motion to withdraw his plea, the petitioner reasserted his innocence and explained that, when he entered the plea, he was light headed, had not slept or eaten much in the four days before he pleaded guilty, was confused by his family members' conflicting advice about pleading guilty, and was overcome with stress caused by the possibility of receiving the mandatory minimum. The trial court held a hearing on the motion and then denied it. The court found that the original plea colloquy was proper and that the petitioner had knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently entered the plea. The court rejected the petitioner's contention that, at the time of the plea, he was confused and suffering from undue stress. The court concluded that the petitioner had not shown a fair and just reason for withdrawing the plea. The petitioner then filed a motion with the trial court to reconsider its decision, and the trial court denied that motion.

         After he was sentenced, the petitioner appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding that the petitioner had not shown a fair and just reason for withdrawing the plea. The petitioner did not argue that the trial court's ruling on the motion deprived him of any rights secured by the U.S. Constitution or another federal law.[1] The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed. It noted that the trial court rejected the petitioner's contention that he was confused or suffering from extreme stress when he pleaded guilty, and that the petitioner had failed to show a fair and just reason for withdrawing the plea. The court of appeals also wrote the following passage, which seems to form the basis for the petitioner's claim in his federal petition:

Senkbeil returns to his assertion of innocence and reminds us of his “swift change of heart.” Maintaining one's innocence is less compelling in an Alford plea situation where such a claim is intrinsic to the plea. Further, an assertion of innocence and a prompt motion to withdraw are but factors for the circuit court to consider in evaluating the motion; they are not themselves fair and just reasons for plea withdrawal. State v. Shimek, 230 Wis.2d 730, 740 n.2 (Ct. App. 1999).

State v. Senkbeil, No. 2014AP562-CR, slip op. at 3-4 (Wis. Ct. App. Oct. 22, 2014).

         Senkbeil filed a petition for review in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In that petition, Senkbeil argued that the court of appeals misapplied the “fair and just reason” standard for withdrawing guilty pleas by finding that the factor of maintaining one's innocence is less compelling in the context of an Alford plea. Senkbeil did not raise any federal claim or federal issue in the petition for review. The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied the petition.

         In his federal petition, Senkbeil asserts one claim: that the Wisconsin courts deprived him of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment when they discounted the factor of maintaining one's innocence in the course of determining that he had not shown a fair and just reason for withdrawing his guilty plea. Senkbeil's argument is that the Wisconsin courts essentially created a different standard, which is more difficult to meet, for a defendant who wishes to withdraw an Alford plea as opposed to a straight guilty plea or a no-contest plea. The respondent has moved to dismiss this claim, arguing that it does not raise a federal issue and therefore is not cognizable on habeas corpus review. In the alternative, the respondent argues that the petitioner failed to exhaust any federal claim he might have by fairly presenting it to the state courts during his direct appeal, and that therefore any such claim has been procedurally defaulted.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The first issue is whether Senkbeil's claim is cognizable under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law. Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. 1, 5 (2010). Rather, to obtain relief, a state prisoner must show that he or she is “in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” Jones v. Basinger, 635 F.3d 1030, 1040 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a)).

         The “fair and just reason” standard for withdrawing a guilty plea is a state-law standard. It is not mandated by the U.S. Constitution or any other federal law that is binding on the states.[2] Thus, any claim that the state courts misapplied this standard in the course of adjudicating Senkbeil's case would not be cognizable on federal habeas corpus review. Senkbeil seems to concede as much. However, he argues that, in this case, the court of appeals effectively created a different, more stringent standard for a defendant who enters an Alford plea when it noted that such a defendant's maintaining his innocence is a “less compelling” reason for withdrawing the plea. The petitioner contends that the court's treating Alf ...


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