Oct. 4, 2019 – A panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that a former Milwaukee street gang leader was wrongly designated a “career offender” which impacted his 35-year prison sentence, but the error was harmless.
Back in the 1991, Michael Daniels (a.k.a. “Chicken”) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for gang-related crimes. Prosecutors pinned him as a leading member of Milwaukee’s Brothers of Struggle street gang, which ran drugs throughout the city.
After a seven-week trial involving 14 defendants and a 36-count indictment, Daniels was convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, using a communication facility to further the distribution of cocaine, and using a firearm in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, all federal crimes.
Daniels was sentenced under mandatory sentencing guidelines, and two prior crimes triggered a “career-offender” designation, a consideration for sentencing. The designation, however, had no effect on the applicable sentencing range.
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that allowed Daniels to challenge his conviction for drug trafficking with a firearm, and that conviction was vacated.
But the sentencing range – 360 months to life – did not change, and the resentencing judge imposed the same 35-year sentence. He was still classified as a career criminal.
Subsequently, Daniels challenged the career offender designation, and a judge agreed that a prior drug conviction was not a “predicate offense” for a career criminal designation, because it was a drug possession charge, not a drug distribution charge.
But the judge did not resentence Daniels because, even if the the career criminal designation was removed, the same sentencing range applied to Daniels.
Then in 2015, Daniels moved to reduce his sentence based on a retroactive amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses, but again, the judge denied his motion because the amendment did not change the sentencing range.
Daniels tried again based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, which allowed him to challenge the career-offender designation. Daniels argued, on vagueness grounds, that a prior crime for sexual abuse of a minor could not count as a predicate violent crime.
The district judge denied Daniels’s motion under 28 U.S.C. section 2255, which allows individuals in federal custody to attack sentences on constitutional grounds, but granted a certificate of appealability while noting the case law is a “analytical minefield.”
In Daniels v. U.S., No. 17-2618 (Oct. 4, 2019), a three-judge panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledge that Daniels’s two prior convictions should not have been counted in determining whether Daniels was a “career offender.”
“Everyone agrees that Daniels was mistakenly designated a career offender based on two nonqualifying predicates,” wrote Judge Diane Sykes.
But the panel declined to revisit Daniels’s 35-year sentence, concluding the mistaken designation was harmless error because, like the previous decisions, the 360 months to life sentence range would not change even without the designation.
“We have long held that Guidelines-calculation errors that don’t affect a defendant’s sentencing range are harmless as a matter of law,” wrote Judge Sykes, noting that the holding applies regardless of the standard used to determine harmless error.
“It’s undisputed that the career-offender misdesignation did not affect the Guidelines range: with or without it, Daniels faced 360 months to life in prison.”
Daniels noted cases indicating an error may not be harmless if a sentencing judge, in remarks during sentencing, tied the career offender designation to the sentence.
“Here the judge never mentioned the career-offender designation in announcing his sentencing decision,” Judge Sykes noted. “No further inquiry is required.”
The panel also rejected Daniels’s argument that the “career offender” designation, which was mistakenly applied, has collateral consequences, including implications for supervised release and future changes in the law that may impact his status.
Judge Sykes noted that the U.S. Probation Office has officially noted the misdesignation in its records and it won’t adversely impact the terms of supervision and release.