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Green v. State of Georgia

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

February 9, 2018

CHARLTON PAUL GREEN, Petitioner-Appellee,
v.
STATE OF GEORGIA, COMMISSIONER, GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Respondents-Appellants.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:11-cv-04544-AT

          Before TJOFLAT, MARCUS and ROGERS, [*] Circuit Judges.

          OFLAT, Circuit Judge:

         In 2009, petitioner Charlton Green was convicted in the Superior Court of Cherokee County, Georgia, of failing to register as a sex offender as required by Georgia law. Green moved the Court for a new trial, claiming that his trial attorney had rendered ineffective assistance under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052 (1984), by failing to argue that the conviction giving rise to the obligation to register, a 1999 sodomy conviction, had been nullified by the United States Supreme Court's intervening decision in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 123 S.Ct. 2472 (2003). The Superior Court denied the motion for a new trial, and Green appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals concluded that his attorney's failure to present the argument to the Superior Court caused Green no prejudice under Strickland, and affirmed his conviction.

         In the proceedings below, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia disagreed and, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, issued a writ of habeas corpus setting aside Green's failure-to-register conviction on the ground that his sodomy conviction was invalid under Lawrence and that his attorney's failure to raise that point in the Superior Court resulted in Strickland prejudice.

         We reverse. Green's claim that Lawrence voided his sodomy conviction was unexhausted and the District Court therefore erred by entertaining it. Further, the Court of Appeals, in light of Georgia state law, correctly found that Green suffered no Strickland prejudice.

         I.

         On June 1, 1997, Charlton Green allegedly performed a sexual act on a sixteen-year-old male in a hotel room while two others were present.[1] Days later a Pickens County, Georgia, grand jury indicted Green in two counts, I and II, for committing sodomy, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-6-2; in three counts, III through V, for furnishing alcohol to a person under twenty-one years of age, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 3-3-23; and in five counts, VI through X, for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-12-1. On arraignment in the Pickens County Superior Court, Green pleaded not guilty to the charges.

         At the time he allegedly committed the offenses charged in the ten-count indictment, Green was on a three-year term of probation for offenses committed in Georgia in 1995. On October 10, 1997, Green pleaded guilty to Counts I and VI through X of the indictment pursuant to a plea agreement.[2] The Court accepted his guilty pleas and sentenced him as a "First Offender"-meaning that adjudication of guilt was withheld-to a three-year term of probation.[3] As a condition of probation, the Court "banished" him from the Appalachian Judicial Circuit,[4]transferred the supervision of his probation to the county of his subsequent residence, and warned him that if he violated the conditions of his probation, he "could suddenly be looking at 20 years" of confinement.

         Within a year, Green violated those conditions. On January 6, 1999,[5] the Superior Court revoked his probation, adjudged him guilty on Counts I and VI through X of his indictment, and sentenced him as follows: Count I, five years' probation with the first ten months to be served in custody; and Counts VI through X, twelve months' probation to be served concurrently with the Count I sentence.[6]Once again, the Court banished Green from the Appalachian Judicial Circuit. As both a consequence of his Count I sodomy conviction and a condition of his probation, Green had to register as a sex offender under Georgia law, O.C.G.A. § 42-1-12.

          In September 1999, Green moved the Pickens County Superior Court to terminate or modify his sentence on Count I in light of Powell v. State, in which the Georgia Supreme Court held that O.C.G.A. § 16-6-2 violated Georgia's Constitution "insofar as it criminalize[d] the performance of private, unforced, non-commercial acts of sexual intimacy between persons legally able to consent." 510 S.E.2d 18, 26 (Ga. 1998). The Superior Court, with no explanation, found Powell inapplicable and denied the motion. Green did not appeal its decision.

         On May 14, 2003, while serving the five-year term of probation imposed by the Pickens County Superior Court on January 6, 1999, Green was charged in Cherokee County with one count of criminal damage to property, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-7-23, and three counts of criminal trespass, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-7-21. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was placed on probation for a period of five years.[7]

         In October 2004, while on probation, Green was indicted in Cherokee County on two counts of attempting to traffic methamphetamine, in violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, O.C.G.A. § 16-13-30. After Green was taken into custody, he was indicted for failure to register as a sex offender, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 42-1-12. On January 25, 2005, Green appeared before the Cherokee County Superior Court and pleaded guilty to one of the drug-trafficking counts and to the failure-to-register charge. The Court sentenced him to prison for two years for the drug offense and to a concurrent one-year prison term for the failure-to-register offense.

         In December 2008, Green was again indicted in Cherokee County for failure to register as a sex offender. He was charged this time as a recidivist. In May 2009, the Superior Court, following a bench trial in which Green was represented by retained counsel, found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to a thirty-year split sentence, with two years to be served in prison and the balance on probation.

         Green retained new counsel and moved the Court for a new trial. He first contended that the State's evidence was insufficient because the 1999 sodomy conviction was invalid under Lawrence, 539 U.S. 558, 123 S.Ct. 2472, and Powell, 510 S.E.2d 18. That is, the State could not prove an element of the failure-to-register violation-a valid underlying conviction for a sexual offense. He then argued that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance under Strickland, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, by not objecting to the failure-to-register charge because the duty to register was based on a constitutionally invalid sodomy conviction.

         Trial counsel should have challenged the validity of the conviction because, under Lawrence and Powell, it was based on constitutionally protected conduct.[8]

         The State resisted the motion on the ground that the Cherokee County Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain an attack on the validity of Green's sodomy conviction. It argued that the Pickens County Superior Court was the only court with jurisdiction to vacate the conviction. If that court set it aside, the State would dismiss the failure-to-register charge.

         The Cherokee County Superior Court agreed with the State that the Pickens County Superior Court was the proper forum for mounting a collateral challenge to the validity of Green's sodomy conviction.[9] Since Green had not petitioned that court for relief, the sodomy conviction was valid for purposes of the failure-to-register prosecution. But, despite its being the improper forum, the Court granted Green's attorney's request to present testimony depicting the sexual activity that, according to counsel, formed the basis of the conviction. The attorney called one witness, the man Green allegedly sodomized. He testified that two girls, one a friend, were present in the hotel room when the act took place.

         At the close of the hearing, the Court reiterated that the Pickens County Superior Court was the appropriate forum for litigating Green's claim that his sodomy conviction was invalid. The Court accordingly denied Green's motion for a new trial and his claim that his trial attorney's performance was constitutionally deficient under Strickland. As for the testimony of the witness counsel had presented, the Court concluded that the sexual encounter was not private and thus not protected by the Powell and Lawrence holdings.

         Green appealed his failure-to-register conviction and the denial of his motion for a new trial to the Georgia Court of Appeals. At the same time, he collaterally attacked his sodomy conviction by filing a "Motion to Pronounce a Valid Judgment" in the Pickens County Superior Court. The Court, citing Powell and Lawrence, granted the motion. The State appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed on procedural grounds, holding that "because a motion to vacate a judgment of conviction is not an established procedure for challenging the validity of a judgment in a criminal case, Green was not authorized to seek relief from his criminal conviction pursuant to such a motion." State v. Green, 706 S.E.2d 720, 721 (Ga. Ct. App. 2011) (footnote omitted). A petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed in the Pickens County Superior Court would provide Green with the means for attacking his conviction under Powell and Lawrence.

         In the meantime, while the State's appeal of the Pickens County Superior Court's decision was still pending, the Court of Appeals affirmed Green's failure-to-register conviction and the denial of his motion for a new trial. Green v. State, 692 S.E.2d 784 (Ga. Ct. App. 2010). The Court acknowledged that since Powell and Lawrence announced new rules of substantive criminal law, Green's sodomy conviction was subject to collateral attack in the Pickens County Superior Court, the court in which he had been convicted. Id. at 786. However, the Court said that it "cannot apply [Powell and Lawrence] in the instant case as it is not here on collateral review. This appeal is from a conviction for failure to register as a sexual offender, which is a proceeding separate from the defendant's [sodomy] offense." Id. Turning to the trial court's denial of Green's ineffective-assistance claim, which was before the Court for review, the Court pretermitted Strickland's performance inquiry and found that trial counsel's failure to object to the prosecution of the failure-to-register offense on the basis of the Powell and Lawrence holdings caused Green no prejudice. Id. at 786–87. The Court based its finding on two grounds. First, trial counsel's objection would have been overruled on the ground that the Cherokee County Superior Court was an inappropriate forum for challenging the sodomy conviction. Second, ...


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