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Commonwealth v. Searight

Supreme Court of Kentucky

February 20, 2014

COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY, APPELLANT
v.
RONNIE LAMONT SEARIGHT, APPELLEE

Released for Publication March 13, 2014.

Page 227

ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS. CASE NO. 2010-CA-001294-MR. FAYETIE CIRCUIT COURT NO. 07-CR-00933.

For APPELLANT: Jack Conway, Attorney General of Kentucky, Heather Michelle Fryman, Assistant Attorney General.

For APPELLEE: Brian Thomas Ruff, Melinda Brooke Buchanan, Assistant Public Advocate.

Page 228

OPINION

MINTON, CHIEF JUSTICE

Deciding a motion for relief from a judgment under Kentucky Rules of Criminal Procedure (RCr) 11.42 for ineffective assistance of trial counsel requires the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing only when there is " a material issue of fact that cannot be determined on the face of the record." [1] And this Court has consistently held that a hearing is not necessary when a trial court can resolve issues on the basis of the record or when " it determine[s] that the allegations, even if true, would not be sufficient to invalidate [the] convictions." [2]

We granted discretionary review to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred by vacating the trial court's denial of Ronnie Lamont Searight's RCr 11.42 motion because the trial court failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing. The Court of Appeals focused its analysis on whether an evidentiary hearing was needed to determine if Searight's trial counsel's alleged errors at trial constituted unprofessional performance or mere trial strategy. In doing so, the Court of Appeals ignored the trial court's ultimate ruling: The RCr 11.42 motion failed because Searight was not prejudiced by any errors of trial counsel regardless of whether those errors amounted to unprofessional performance.

We depart from the analysis of the Court of Appeals in this case and instead focus on the trial court's analysis of prejudice to Searight. Our precedent clearly establishes that the RCr 11.42 movant must carry the burden of proving both unprofessional performance and prejudice in order to succeed with an ineffective assistance of counsel argument.[3] After analyzing

Page 229

the record, we hold that the trial court properly denied Searight's RCr 11.42 motion on prejudice grounds without a hearing; and the Court of Appeals erred by vacating the order and remanding for an evidentiary hearing to determine trial strategy.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

Four months after Searight was released on parole, Sergeant Clay Combs witnessed him leaning into a vehicle that was stopped in the road impeding traffic. Sergeant Combs believed he saw Searight withdraw his hand holding a small object. Suspecting he had just witnessed a drug transaction, Sergeant Combs activated his emergency lights and called to Searight. Searight fled when he saw Sergeant Combs, who chased Searight through parking lots and over fences before losing sight of him. Searight was eventually found hiding in a garbage can. He was arrested and searched.

The initial search of Searight following his arrest was performed by Officer Justin Burnette. The search disclosed no contraband or weapons. Searight was then placed in the back of Officer Burnette's squad car, which had been detailed and vacuumed earlier that day. Searight was the only person in the backseat of Officer Burdette's squad car since it had been cleaned. While Searight was in the backseat, the officers noticed him squirming in an unusual manner, arousing suspicion. The officers removed Searight from the squad car to search him again. When he exited the vehicle, the officers saw a bag containing what was later identified as 683 milligrams of cocaine laying on the seat where Searight had been sitting. Searight immediately denied the bag was his.

The grand jury indicted Searight on four counts: (1) first-degree possession of a controlled substance, (2) first-degree fleeing or evading police, (3) third-degree criminal mischief, and (4) first-degree persistent felony offender. At trial, the jury convicted Searight on all counts except criminal ...


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