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United States v. Eli

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT


August 20, 2004

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE
v.
ALFRED ELI, A/K/A BEGOD, APPELLANT

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 97cr00292–01)

Before: Edwards, Garland, and Roberts, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garland, Circuit Judge

Argued February 9, 2004

Alfred Eli, who is serving a 121-month prison sentence, contends that his counsel was ineffective in failing to argue that the substance he distributed was not ''crack cocaine,'' but rather a form of cocaine for which a lower sentence should have been imposed. Because we affirm the district court's finding that Eli did, in fact, distribute crack cocaine, we conclude that he suffered no prejudice as a result of his counsel's alleged failure.

I.

On July 17, 1997, a federal grand jury issued a three-count indictment charging Eli with violating 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A)(iii) by distributing 50 grams or more of ''a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base, also known as crack,'' to an undercover police officer on three separate occasions: March 6, 1997 (Count One); March 13, 1997 (Count Two); and April 2, 1997 (Count Three).*fn1 On December 12, 1997, Eli entered a plea of guilty to Count One of the indictment pursuant to a written plea agreement. Under the agreement, Eli conceded, inter alia, that he: (1) distributed more than 50 grams of ''Cocaine Base ('crack'), in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii)''; (2) was accountable ''for at least 150 but less than 500 grams of cocaine base, also known as 'crack' '' for purposes of the United States Sentencing Guidelines; and (3) was subject to a ''possible penalty of not less than ten years'' in prison. Plea Agreement ¶¶ 1, 2 (Dec. 12, 1997). In return, the government agreed to dismiss the indictment's two remaining counts and not to oppose Eli's request for a 3-level reduction in his guidelines offense level for acceptance of responsibility.

The district court conducted the plea hearing required by Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and accepted Eli's guilty plea. In the course of the hearing, Eli agreed that: he had read the charges in the indictment with his attorney; he understood those charges; he realized that he faced a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison; and he had, in fact, distributed crack cocaine. Eli assented to the final point several times. See, e.g., 12/12/97 Tr. at 6, 9, 16-20. Based on these admissions, the district court adjudged Eli guilty of ''Count One of the indictment charging unlawful distribution of cocaine base, or crack on March 6th, 1997.'' Id. at 21.

The court sentenced Eli on April 2, 1998. It found that Eli's offense -- distributing ''between 150 and 500 grams of crack cocaine'' -- corresponded to a guidelines offense level of 34. 4/2/98 Tr. at 9; see U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(c)(3) (drug quantity table) (1997). The court decreased that offense level by 3 because Eli had accepted responsibility for his crime by pleading guilty, resulting in an adjusted offense level of 31. See U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1(a)-(b). Combined with Eli's criminal history category of II, this adjusted offense level yielded a guidelines sentencing range of 121-151 months in prison. See U.S.S.G. ch. 5, pt. A (sentencing table). The court then sentenced Eli to 121 months' incarceration -- the bottom of the guidelines range and just one month more than the plea agreement had identified as the statutory minimum for the offense. Plea Agreement ¶ 1; see 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii). Although the court advised Eli of his right to appeal, neither Eli nor his counsel filed a notice of appeal within the 10-day period fixed by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b)(1)(A).

A year later, on April 5, 1999, Eli filed a pro se motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, on the ground that his defense counsel had been constitutionally ineffective. The district court appointed an attorney to represent Eli, who supplemented Eli's initial motion and filed two additional motions. As supplemented, Eli's motion charged that his original counsel had been ineffective by failing to note a timely appeal from his conviction, by failing to advise Eli that there was an issue regarding whether the substance he sold was ''crack cocaine'' within the meaning of the Sentencing Guidelines, and by failing to contest drug identity at sentencing. The additional motions, based on the Supreme Court's opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), contended that: (1) if the court were to order a resentencing, the government should be required to prove that Eli sold crack cocaine beyond a reasonable doubt; and (2) the statute under which Eli was sentenced, 21 U.S.C. § 841, is unconstitutional.*fn2

Following an evidentiary hearing conducted on May 30 and 31, 2001, the district court granted Eli's § 2255 motion with respect to his counsel's failure to file a timely notice of appeal, but denied all of Eli's other claims. See United States v. Eli, 227 F. Supp. 2d 90 (D.D.C. 2002). In particular, the court found, ''beyond a reasonable doubt,'' that Eli distributed ''crack cocaine.'' Id. at 101. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2253, the court issued a certificate of appealability with respect to the denied claims, and Eli filed a timely notice of appeal.*fn3

II.

In this court, Eli seeks reversal of the district court's denial of his claims that his original counsel was constitutionally ineffective because: ''(1) he advised defendant to plead guilty to one count of the indictment without advising him that 'cocaine base' and 'crack' were not the same thing or that the government had to prove that the substance was 'crack,' and (2) [he] made no attempt to raise this issue'' at sentencing. Appellant's Br. at 6. Notwithstanding the first claim of ineffective assistance, however, Eli most emphatically does not want his plea vacated.*fn4 To the contrary, the only prejudice he asserts is the length of his sentence, and the only relief he seeks is a lower sentence to reflect the fact that the substance he distributed was not ''crack.'' Id. at 25.*fn5

We consider ineffective assistance of counsel claims pursuant to the two-pronged test enunciated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). ''First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficientTTTT Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.'' 466 U.S. at 687. The latter prong requires the defendant to demonstrate that ''there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'' Id. at 694; see Glover v. United States, 531 U.S. 198, 200 (2001) (holding that ''if an increased prison term did flow from an error the petitioner has established Strickland prejudice''). As both parties agree, we review the factual findings that underpin a district court's legal conclusions regarding ineffective assistance only for clear error. See United States v. Taylor, 339 F.3d 973, 978 (D.C. Cir. 2003); United States v. Askew, 88 F.3d 1065, 1070 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

Although the government raises a multitude of arguments in opposition to Eli's claim of ineffective assistance, the district court has thoughtfully provided a simple and direct route to resolving this appeal. After an evidentiary hearing, the court found that the substance Eli distributed was in fact ''crack cocaine.'' 227 F. Supp. 2d at 101. If that finding survives review, Eli cannot satisfy the Strickland test because, even if his counsel's performance were deficient (a point we do not address), Eli cannot show that he was prejudiced in the manner he contends. We therefore proceed directly to the question of the substance's identity.

III.

A.

Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the sentencing range for a defendant convicted of a narcotics offense depends upon the amount and identity of the drug he distributed during the offense charged in the count of conviction, as well as in the course of related conduct. See U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(a)(3) (base offense level); id. § 2D1.1(c) (drug quantity table). Eli concedes that he is accountable for the distribution of approximately 250 grams of a mixture or substance containing ''cocaine base.'' Since 1993, however, the guidelines have distinguished between the broader term ''cocaine base'' and the form of cocaine base known as ''crack.'' See id. § 2D1.1(c), Note (D). For someone with Eli's criminal history who accepts responsibility for his conduct, the guidelines sentencing range for distributing 250 grams of ''crack'' is 121-151 months -- the range that the court applied to Eli and that led to his 121-month sentence. The corresponding range for 250 grams of cocaine base not in the form of crack is 27-33 months -- the same range applicable to powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride).

The guidelines sentencing ranges are also driven, in substantial part, by the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1). Subsection 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) imposes a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence for a violation involving ''50 grams or more'' of a mixture or substance ''which contains cocaine base.'' If the drug is a form of cocaine not within the statutory meaning of ''cocaine base,'' there is no mandatory minimum at all unless at least 500 grams are involved. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B)(ii); see also id. § 841(b)(1)(A)(ii). Eli's total was only 249.4 grams.

A 1993 amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines, incorporated in Note (D) to the Drug Quantity Table, provides the following definition:

hydrochloride and sodium bicarbonate, and usually appearing in a lumpy, rocklike form. U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(c), Note (D). The Sentencing Commission explained the reason for the amendment as follows:

This amendment provides that, for purposes of the guidelines, ''cocaine base'' means ''crack.'' TTT Under this amendment, forms of cocaine base other than crack ( e.g., coca paste, an intermediate step in the processing of coca leaves into cocaine hydrochloride, scientifically is a base form of cocaine, but it is not crack) will be treated as cocaine.

U.S.S.G. App. C, Amend. 487; see United States v. Washington, 115 F.3d 1008, 1010-11 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (noting that, for guidelines purposes, ''cocaine base'' means ''crack'').

At the time this appeal was argued, this court had not yet addressed whether the statutory term ''cocaine base,'' which designates the drug subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum provision of § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii), has the same meaning that the Sentencing Guidelines ascribe to the term: i.e., that '' 'cocaine base' means 'crack,' '' U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(c), Note (D). Subsequent to oral argument, however, another panel of this court addressed and partially resolved the question. In United States v. Brisbane, the court first rejected the possibility that, for purposes of the statute, '' 'cocaine base' TTT include[s] all base forms of cocaine.'' 367 F.3d 910, 913 (D.C. Cir. 2004). It then identified ''two other options'':

First, ''cocaine base'' could mean only crack[,]TTTT the only form of cocaine that is both smokable and widely availableTTTT The second option is that ''cocaine base'' means any cocaine that is smokableTTTT In addition to crack, [this] includes in the definition ''traditional'' freebase cocaine and cocaine paste.

Id. at 914. In the end, the Brisbane court concluded that it ''need not choose between the[se] two options,'' because ''the government did not prove that the substance distributed was smokable and it did not prove that it was crack.'' Id. The parties have filed supplemental submissions concerning Brisbane 's applicability to Eli's appeal.

B.

There may be cases in which it will be difficult to determine whether a particular batch of ''cocaine base'' falls within the definition of that term as it is used in the Sentencing Guidelines and/or the 10-year mandatory minimum provision of § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii). But this is not such a case, thanks in large part to the diligent district judge who, after conducting an extensive evidentiary hearing, made findings that ''covered all the bases'' -- so to speak. Following that hearing, the judge found that Eli had distributed ''crack cocaine.'' Eli, 227 F. Supp. 2d at 101. That finding places Eli squarely within the enhanced sentencing provisions of both the guidelines and the statute.

The district court's determination relied upon, and was well supported by, the evidence produced at the hearing.*fn6 First, the government chemist testified, and Eli did not dispute, that Eli's drugs tested positive for cocaine base. See PSR ¶ 3. Second, both the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA's) lab report and the U.S. Probation Office's Presentence Investigation Report (to which Eli acceded) stated that the drugs recovered in the sales were ''rock-like.'' 227 F. Supp. 2d at 96 (citing PSR ¶ 3); see DEA Form 7 (3/7/97); id. (3/14/97); id. (4/3/97). Third, the chemist indicated that the drugs were smokable. See 5/30/01 Tr. at 187. Finally, he concluded that the drugs were properly identified as crack cocaine. Id. at 179, 180. Whatever distinctions there may be in the various definitions of ''cocaine base,'' this evidence suffices to support the conclusion that the substance Eli sold was ''crack.''*fn7

Eli contests this conclusion on three grounds. First, he notes that lab tests showed that the drugs were relatively impure -- between 36 and 44 percent cocaine base -- and asserts that crack cocaine is usually 70-90 percent cocaine base. But the district court concluded that the low purity did not disqualify the drugs as crack, relying on the chemist's testimony that, while the purity was somewhat lower than the typical purity of 50-60 percent, he had tested crack of substantially lower purity. Eli, 227 F. Supp. 2d at 97 (citing 5/30/01 Tr. at 178-80, 186). We see no error in that determination. Cf. U.S. Sentencing Commission, COCAINE AND FEDERAL SENTENCING POLICY 17 (2002) (noting that the ''processes used by some crack cocaine manufacturers TTT introduce impurities resulting in a product less pure than the powder cocaine from which it was derived'').

Second, Eli notes that at least one of the samples contained traces of dimethyltrephalate (DMT), and argues that the sample cannot be classified as crack because the DMT would render it unsmokable. According to Eli's experts, DMT emits fumes that would irritate a user's eyes and respiratory tract. The district court, however, found that the presence of DMT did ''not support the conclusion that these drugs could not be 'used' as crack cocaine -- i.e., smoked by a user to introduce the drugs into his body.'' 227 F. Supp. 2d at 98. It made that finding based on testimony by the government chemist indicating that the substance would still be smokable because cocaine base has a lower melting point than DMT, and hence when burned would '' 'come out' of the mixture'' first. Id. (quoting 5/30/01 Tr. at 181); see 5/30/01 Tr. at 173-74.*fn8 Although Eli rejects this testimony on the ground that the chemist did not attempt to smoke the substance himself, we can hardly insist that a government chemist smoke a drug sample in order to certify its identity.

Finally, Eli argues that, because lab tests showed that the April 2nd sample contained traces of sodium borate, that sample did not satisfy the definition of crack. The district court concluded that the presence of sodium borate did not undermine the conclusion that the substance was crack, in light of the chemist's testimony that he: (1) had successfully used sodium borate rather than sodium bicarbonate to convert powder cocaine into crack in a laboratory setting; (2) had personally found sodium borate in other crack samples; and (3) was aware that sodium borate had been detected in crack samples by other chemists nationwide. 227 F. Supp. 2d at 97 (citing 5/30/01 Tr. at 166-67, 172, 180-81, 187). The court's conclusion was reasonable. The Sentencing Guidelines do not insist that crack can be made only with sodium bicarbonate; they merely state that it is ''usually prepared'' that way. U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(c), Note (D). Nor did Brisbane exclude the possibility that crack could be made using a compound other than sodium bicarbonate. See 367 F.3d at 914.

In sum, the district court's finding that Eli distributed ''crack cocaine'' -- a term that, as used here, satisfies the definition of ''cocaine base'' adopted by both the Sentencing Guidelines and Brisbane for purposes of enhanced sentencing -- is well supported and not clearly erroneous. Hence, even if Eli's counsel had advised him of that definition and raised the issue during the April 2, 1998, sentencing,*fn9 it would have made no difference in Eli's sentence.*fn10 Accordingly, because there is no ''reasonable probability that, but for counsel's [alleged] unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different,'' Eli cannot show that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective under the second prong of the Strickland test. 466 U.S. at 694.

IV.

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is

Affirmed.


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