Claim of pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) for failing to make a suppression motion is cognizable in federal habeas. After exhausting his claim in the state courts, Mahrt filed a federal habeas petition alleging that his trial attorney rendered IAC by failing to make a suppression motion. The district court granted relief. The government appealed, arguing that federal habeas relief was unavailable under Tollett v. Henderson (1973) 411 U.S. 258 because the suppression motion preceded Mahrt’s guilty plea and that, even if federal habeas relief were available, the state court’s decision rejecting the claim was not an unreasonable application of clearly established U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Held: Reversed. Tollett sets forth the rule that a guilty plea generally precludes a defendant from raising constitutional claims that arose before he entered the plea. However, pre-plea IAC is an exception. (Tollett v. Henderson, supra, 411 U.S. 258, 267-268.) The Attorney General’s argument, that the IAC exception only applies when the IAC concerns the guilty plea itself, reads Tollett too narrowly. A number of other courts have recognized that a claim of pre-plea IAC for failing to bring a suppression motion is cognizable on federal habeas. Nevertheless, relief is unwarranted because the state court did not unreasonably apply clearly established Supreme Court precedent by denying the claim. Both the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court issued one sentence denials. In such a situation, the rule set forth in Harrington v. Richter (2011) 562 U.S. 86, 102, requires the federal court to supply a valid reason the state courts could have articulated for rejecting the claim. Here, the state courts could have denied the IAC claim on the basis that a motion to suppress would have properly been denied based on the application of the “emergency assistance” exception.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2017/03/01/15-16404.pdf