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September 5, 1996


Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County. No. 93CF223. Honorable Ronald C. Dozier, Judge Presiding.

Petition for Rehearing Denied October 3, 1996. Released for Publication October 3, 1996.

Honorable Robert W. Cook, P.j., Honorable Rita B. Garman, J. - Concur, Honorable James A. Knecht, J. - Concur. Presiding Justice Cook delivered the opinion of the court.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cook

PRESIDING JUSTICE COOK delivered the opinion of the court:

Defendant Antonio Hernandez filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging, inter alia, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his counsel failed to perfect an appeal. The trial court dismissed defendant's petition as "patently without merit," pursuant to section 122-2.1(a)(2) of the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (Act) (725 ILCS 5/122-2.1(a)(2) (West 1992)). Defendant appeals, contending that the trial court erred in summarily dismissing his petition. We reverse and remand for appointment of counsel who will amend the post-conviction petition.

In March 1994, following a bench trial, defendant was found guilty of cannabis trafficking (720 ILCS 550/5.1 (West 1992)) and two lesser possession offenses that merged with the trafficking charge. Defendant was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. No direct appeal was taken from defendant's conviction and sentence.

Prior to trial, retained defense counsel had filed motions to suppress statements made by defendant and evidence seized from defendant's car. The trial court struck the motions as untimely but stated it would consider the suppression issues they raised when ruling on the admissibility of evidence at trial.

At trial, the State presented evidence that Officer Jeffrey Wilson was on routine patrol when he decided to investigate a car parked in the lot of a Super 8 Motel in McLean, Illinois. The car caught Wilson's attention because it was painted in two different tones of gold and had Texas license plates. A license check revealed the car was registered to Juan Hernandez of El Paso, Texas, and that the car had crossed the United States-Mexico border the day before. Wilson requested a K-9 unit, and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs in the car. Wilson then sought consent to search the car. Three officers knocked on the door of a motel room registered under the name Hernandez, and after a delay, defendant answered. Although defendant is a Mexican national with limited English abilities, he was able to communicate his consent to a search of his room and car. The search of defendant's car revealed a possible secret compartment. The police asked permission to poke holes in the car, and defendant again consented. After two holes were poked in the trunk area, more than 50 pounds of cannabis were discovered in a secret compartment. Defendant was arrested and taken to a Bloomington police station. There, with the aid of an interpreter, defendant was advised of his Miranda rights and interviewed. Defendant stated that he was hired in Durango, Mexico, by a man named Melon to drive a vehicle containing drugs to Chicago.

Defendant, through an interpreter, testified that the police officers entered his motel room with guns drawn. Defendant did not consent to the search of the room or the car, and he understood little of what the officers said. Defendant stated he had been hired by Melon to drive the car to Chicago, but he did not know that the car contained cannabis. Defendant introduced the report of Dr. James Alstrum, an associate professor of Spanish, who determined defendant had limited comprehension of English.

At trial, defendant's attorney did not renew his objections to the evidence he had sought to suppress nor did the trial court make any specific findings regarding the evidence's admissibility. The court did state in passing that it believed defendant's consent was not necessary for a valid search of his car. After the court found defendant guilty, defense counsel filed neither a post-trial motion nor a notice of appeal. Of course, defense counsel can hardly be expected to argue his own incompetency. People v. Ruiz, 132 Ill. 2d 1, 9, 547 N.E.2d 170, 173, 138 Ill. Dec. 201 (1989).

In August 1994, defendant filed his pro se petition for post-conviction relief and supporting affidavits. Defendant averred that he was never informed by his attorney of the nature and meaning of his right to appeal. Defendant further averred that when he questioned the court interpreter about what the judge had stated about an appeal, the interpreter stated, "that's nothing, don't worry about that." After being informed of his right to appeal by a prison law library clerk, defendant obtained the common law record of his case and learned no appeal had been filed.

Defendant's petition for post-conviction relief contained general allegations that his counsel should have been more diligent in his investigations, but the petition presented no indication of what additional evidence would have been revealed by a diligent investigation. Defendant's present appeal focuses on two specific allegations contained in his petition: (1) counsel had a duty to perfect an appeal, and (2) "due to counsel's untimely filing of [defendant's] motions to suppress evidence and statements, resulting in them being stricken, counsel had a duty to preserve the issue of counsel's own negligence in preparing and bringing forth said motions for review."

In its order summarily dismissing the petition under section 122-2.1(a) of the Act, the trial court stated that although it struck defendant's suppression motions, it considered the same issues raised in those motions when ruling on the admissibility of evidence during the course of trial. Because the court resolved the issues against defendant, and because the case was presented as a bench trial, the court stated no prejudice resulted from the untimely filing of the suppression motions. Since the allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel were baseless, there was equally no basis for finding defense counsel failed to preserve his own errors for review. The court challenged defendant's allegations that he was not informed of his appeal rights. First, the court noted that the court interpreter had served without complaint for a number of years, and defendant suggested no motive why a respected interpreter would fail to translate the court's admonishments. The court stated it recalled giving the appeal admonishments at the sentencing hearing and that the entire hearing was exceedingly slow and careful to ensure defendant understood the proceeding. The court noted that defendant repeatedly maintained that his comprehension of English was so minimal that he could not understand things that were said or done in the search leading to his arrest, the taking of statements, the trial, and giving of appeal rights. The court stated that defendant's degree of English comprehension involved an issue of credibility which the court resolved against defendant, based on testimony at trial and the court's own observations of defendant. However, the court stated that the issues raised by defendant's petition were more appropriate for a direct appeal, and it urged this court to grant a late appeal if defendant so desired. Accordingly, the court dismissed the petition as patently without merit.

The Act provides a three-step process for adjudication of petitions for post-conviction relief. 725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 1992). The first step requires the trial court consider the petition to determine whether it is frivolous or patently without merit. If it is, the petition is dismissed. 725 ILCS 5/122-2.1(a)(2) (West 1992). If the court determines at this first stage that the petition is not frivolous or patently without merit, then at the second stage the court may appoint counsel to represent an indigent defendant, and counsel will have the opportunity to amend the post-conviction petition. The State may then move to dismiss the petition. The third and final stage is an ...

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