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Rios v. Ames

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

December 20, 2019

Andrew R. Rios, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
v.
Donnie Ames, Superintendent, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent Below, Respondent

          Ohio County 10-C-32 and 16-C-286

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Andrew R. Rios, pro se, appeals the August 31, 2018, order of the Circuit Court of Ohio County denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Respondent Donnie Ames, Superintendent, Mt. Olive Correctional Complex, by counsel Shannon Frederick Kiser, filed a summary response in support of the circuit court's order.

         The Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's orders is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         On January 10, 2008, petitioner entered a plea of guilty in the Circuit Court of Ohio County to first-degree robbery pursuant to a plea agreement with the State after having been charged by information. The State agreed not to pursue a second charge of first-degree robbery for a separate incident occurring on the same night as the robbery at issue. The State further agreed not to seek a gun specification necessary for a sentencing enhancement. Given that there was no such enhancement, petitioner will be eligible for parole after serving fifteen years of incarceration.

         During the plea hearing, petitioner admitted that, on the night in question, he (1) picked up an individual named Derek Brown; (2) drove Mr. Brown to a rural part of Ohio County and pulled his vehicle over; (3) discharged a firearm three times (the third shot coming within inches from Mr. Brown's face); and (4) took certain items from Mr. Brown. Petitioner further acknowledged that he understood that he could be sentenced to a term of incarceration of not less than ten years with no upper limit.[1]

         On February 22, 2008, the circuit court held a sentencing hearing. In the presentence investigation report, the probation officer recommended that the circuit court forego alternative sentencing for petitioner based on the seriousness of the crime. In accordance with that recommendation, the circuit court declined to consider alternative sentencing, including commitment to the Anthony Center for Youthful Offenders. Also, petitioner, then twenty-one years old, did not request such sentencing alternatives. The circuit court sentenced petitioner to a term of sixty years of incarceration. Subsequently, petitioner filed a motion for reduction of sentence, which the circuit court denied by order entered on January 30, 2009.

         Petitioner also appealed his sentence, but this Court refused his appeal by order entered on February 5, 2009. Thereafter, petitioner filed a second motion for reduction of sentence on June 5, 2009. The circuit court did not deny that motion until March 31, 2015. Petitioner appealed the circuit court's order denying the motion for reduction of sentence in State v. Rios ("Rios I"), No. 15-0347, 2016 WL 2969180 ( W.Va. May 20, 2016) (memorandum decision). In Rios I, this Court affirmed the circuit court's March 31, 2015, order, finding that there was no abuse of discretion. Id. at *2.

         Meanwhile, petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, asserting ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims, in the circuit court on January 20, 2010. The circuit court first addressed this habeas petition in an order entered on April 28, 2010, finding that petitioner alleged that trial counsel failed to (1) challenge the statement in the presentence investigation report that petitioner did not fire the third shot just inches from the victim's face; (2) present mitigation evidence at the sentencing hearing; (3) review the presentence investigation report with petitioner; and (4) ask the circuit court to consider petitioner for alternative sentencing, including the commitment to the Anthony Center for Youthful Offenders. The circuit court found that these ineffective assistance of counsel claims, if true, would not have changed the outcome of the sentencing hearing. First, the circuit court explained that the third shot being just inches from the victim's face "did not weigh heavily in the [c]ourt's decision to sentence [p]etitioner to sixty years [of incarceration]"[2] and that rather, "[t]he [c]ourt considered the totality of the circumstances of [petitioner]'s crime[.]" Next, the circuit court rejected the claim that trial counsel deficiently represented petitioner and found that petitioner's assertion that counsel did not review the presentence investigation report with him was "disingenuous" given petitioner's concession that counsel had the report during their meeting prior to sentencing. Finally, the circuit court found that trial counsel's failure to ask for alternative sentencing notwithstanding, the court "consider[ed] whether [petitioner] should be treated under the Youthful Offender statute, but declined to do so pursuant to the presentence investigation report's recommendations." Therefore, the circuit court denied these ineffective assistance claims without a hearing.

         The other claim set forth in petitioner's 2010 habeas petition was counsel's alleged failure to appeal the denial of the first motion for reduction of sentence. The circuit court deferred ruling on that issue. On September 19, 2016, petitioner filed a second habeas petition. By order entered on October 13, 2016, the circuit court consolidated the two habeas proceedings. The circuit court found that any failure to appeal the denial of the first motion for reduction of sentence did not cause petitioner prejudice given this Court's affirmation of the denial of the second such motion in Rios. The circuit court further found that the ineffective assistance claims raised in petitioner's 2016 habeas petition were the same as the claims previously raised in the 2010 petition. Accordingly, the circuit court reaffirmed its denial of those claims.

         As to the remaining claim set forth in petitioner's 2016 habeas petition, the circuit court appointed habeas counsel for petitioner and held a hearing as to the alleged unconstitutional disproportionality of his sentence on June 13, 2018.[3] Thereafter, by order entered on August 31, 2018, the circuit court found that petitioner's sentence was not unconstitutionally disproportionate under either the subjective test set forth in Syllabus Point 5 of State v. Cooper, 172 W.Va. 266');">172 W.Va. 266, 304 S.E.2d 851 (1983), [4] or the objective test set forth in Syllabus Point 5 of Wanstreet v. Bordenkircher, 166 W.Va. 523');">166 W.Va. 523, 276 S.E.2d 205 (1981).[5] Therefore, the circuit court denied petitioner's habeas petition. Petitioner now appeals the circuit court's August 31, 2018, order.

         In Syllabus Points 1 and 2 of Watts v. Ballard, 238 W.Va. 730, 798 S.E.2d 856 (2017), we held:

"In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court in a habeas corpus action, we apply a three-prong standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law are subject to a de novo review." Syl. Pt. 1, Mathena v. Haines, 219 W.Va. 417, 633 S.E.2d 771 (2006).
"West Virginia Code section 53-4A-7(c) (1994) requires a circuit court denying or granting relief in a habeas corpus proceeding to make specific findings of fact and conclusions of law relating to each contention advanced by the petitioner, and to state the grounds upon which the matter was determined." Syl. Pt. 1, State ex rel. Watson v. Hill, 200 W.Va. 201, 488 S.E.2d 476 (1997).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court failed to make findings of fact and conclusions of law for claims other than the alleged disproportionality of his sentence in its August 31, 2018, order. Respondent counters that the circuit court's findings regarding petitioner's other claims were set forth in its April 28, 2010, and October 13, 2016, orders, in which it found that those claims could be denied without a hearing. Based on our review of those orders, we agree with respondent ...


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