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Daniels v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 4, 2019

Michael Daniels, Petitioner-Appellant,
United States of America, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued February 21, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 15-CV-1440-J.P. Stadtmueller, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Sykes, and Barrett, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         In 1991 Michael Daniels was sentenced to 35 years in prison for drug-trafficking crimes he committed while leading the violent Brothers of the Struggle street gang in Milwaukee in the 1980s. Based on two of his many prior crimes, he was sentenced as a career offender under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines. But the designation did not affect his sentencing range, which was 360 months to life with or without it.

         More than two decades later, Daniels moved to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on the authority of Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), which invalidated the "residual clause" in the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague. Daniels argued that the identically phrased residual clause in the career-offender guideline is likewise unconstitutionally vague. Because one of the predicate convictions for his career-offender status qualified only under the residual clause, Daniels maintained that he was entitled to resentencing. The district judge disagreed, relying on Beckles v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 886 (2017), which forecloses vagueness challenges to the post-Booker advisory Sentencing Guidelines. The judge certified his decision for appeal based on uncertainty about the status of circuit precedent regarding vagueness challenges to the pre-Booker mandatory Guidelines.

         The parties addressed that question in their initial briefs. In the meantime, a panel of this court issued a definitive answer, ruling that defendants who were sentenced under the mandatory Guidelines may bring Johnson-based vagueness challenges to the career-offender guideline. Cross v. United States, 892 F.3d 288, 304-06 (7th Cir. 2018). Applying Johnson, the panel in Cross invalidated the residual clause of the "crime of violence" definition in the career-offender guideline and applied that ruling retroactively, authorizing relief under § 2255. Id. at 299-304.

         We directed the parties to file new briefs addressing the effect of Cross on this case. We now affirm. Under Johnson and Cross, Daniels was wrongly designated a career offender. But the error was harmless because it did not affect his sentence.

         I. Background

         On direct appeal 26 years ago, we described Daniels's extensive involvement with a violent drug-trafficking organization in Milwaukee in the 1980s. See United States v. Goines, 988 F.2d 750, 756-57, 778-79 (7th Cir. 1993). To briefly recap, Daniels helped the Brothers of the Struggle gain a foothold in the city, ran one of the gang's drug houses, recruited others to join the conspiracy, and generally "ruled with the proverbial iron fist through intimidation." Id. at 779.

         Daniels and 14 coconspirators were arrested in 1990 and charged in a 36-count indictment with conspiracy and related drug-trafficking and firearms offenses. After a seven-week trial, a jury found him guilty of three crimes: (1) conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846; (2) using a communication facility to further the distribution of cocaine, id. § 843(b); and (3) using a firearm in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). He was sentenced in 1991 under the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines. His lengthy criminal record placed him in criminal-history category V, and his offense level was 38. Two of his prior convictions-a 1982 conviction for "rape and indecent liberties to a child" and a 1988 conviction for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute-qualified as a "crime of violence" and a "controlled substance offense," respectively, and thus counted as the two predicates necessary to trigger application of the career-offender guideline. U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1-.2.

         Accordingly, Daniels was designated a career offender based on these two convictions, which raised his criminal-history category to VI. But the designation had no effect on the sentencing range. With an offense level of 38 and a criminal-history category of either V or VI, the range was the same: 360 months to life. The judge imposed concurrent sentences of 420 months for the two drug crimes and a consecutive sentence of 60 months for the firearm offense.

         A few years later, the Supreme Court's decision in Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137 (1995), cast doubt on the § 924(c) conviction, and Daniels filed a § 2255 motion to vacate his sentence. The judge granted the motion, vacated the firearm conviction, and resentenced him on the two remaining counts. His offense level increased to 40 because he became eligible for a firearm-related enhancement that was previously precluded by the separate § 924(c) conviction. His criminal-history category remained the same. As before, the career-offender designation had no effect: The sentencing range was 360 months to life with or without it. The judge reimposed the same 420-month sentence for the two remaining convictions, explaining that he saw no reason to revisit the original sentence.

         Daniels unsuccessfully appealed the judge's resentencing decision and thereafter filed a flurry of motions challenging other aspects of his sentence. One such motion attacked the career-offender designation. While that motion was pending, Daniels wrote to the U.S. Probation Office asking it to review his career-offender label. On review the Probation Office determined that Daniels was not in fact a career offender because the 1988 drug conviction was for simple felony drug ...

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