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Guilty plea was valid despite judge’s mistaken statement about mandatory minimum sentence

Percell Dansberry v. Randy Pfister, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 13-3723, 9/15/15

The judge who took Dansberry’s guilty plea understated the mandatory minimum sentence Dansberry faced, and therefore Dansberry’s plea was not entered with a full understanding of the consequences, as required under Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969), and Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970). But the Supreme Court has not held Boykin errors to be structural, so the state court’s rejection of his plea withdrawal motion on harmless error grounds was not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

Dansberry pled to murder and armed robbery, each of which carried minimum sentences of 20 years and 6 years, respectively. State law required the sentences for the offenses to be consecutive. Dansberry was also eligible for an extended sentence on the murder, which added another 40 years to the maximum penalty. When taking Dansberry’s plea, however, the judge mistakenly said that consecutive sentences were merely “possible,” not mandatory, and didn’t advise Dansberry of the extra 40 years that could be added on (though he did say, correctly, that Dansberry could be given life in prison, or even the death penalty). (Slip op. at 3).

The state courts rejected Dansberry’s plea-withdrawal attempts, finding that the trial court “substantially” complied with the due process requirements for taking a plea and, in any event, that Dansberry hadn’t shown any “prejudice.” Danbury then sought habeas relief. The district court found the erroneous statement of the mandatory minimum sentence was a due process violation (though the mistake about the maximum was not, given the advice the court gave about life imprisonment). However, the district court agreed the error was harmless. (Slip op. at 4-6).

The Seventh Circuit affirms, holding the state courts didn’t err by applying harmless error analysis to a Boykin claim or by finding the error here to be harmless:

We are aware of no Supreme Court decision directly addressing whether a Boykin error is structural. But at least one of our sister circuits has held that it is not. See United States v. Johns, 625 F.2d 1175, 1176 (5th Cir. 1980) (holding that “[e]ven if the district court erred under Boykin … it would not be reversible error” because the record established that it was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt”). And this court, in Steward v. Peters, rejected a due process claim where the court erroneously admonished the defendant about his mandatory minimum sentence but the error was immaterial—i.e., it would not have changed the defendant’s plea. 958 F.2d 1379, 1385 (7th Cir. 1992).

Similarly, we think an erroneous admonishment of the kind we have here—an incorrect statement of a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence—is nonstructural. It does not affect the entire proceedings in the way that, e.g., an outright denial of counsel would. Cf. [United States v.] Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. [140,] 149 [(2006)] (giving examples of structural errors). And its effects are likely to be identifiable and measurable. Cf. id. at 150 (finding structural error where the effects are “necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate”). In short, an erroneous admonishment about a mandatory minimum sentence does not defy analysis for harmless error. (Slip op. at 9).

The court notes, however, that not every Boykin error will be reviewed for harmless error: “In United States v. Dominguez Benitez,.. the Supreme Court suggested in a footnote that some due process violations during a plea colloquy might require automatic reversal of a conviction. 542 U.S. 74, 84 n.10 (2004). For example, where the record of the plea hearing ‘contains no evidence that a defendant knew of the rights he was putatively waiving,’ as in Boykin itself, then ‘the conviction must be reversed.’ Id. The Court continued: ‘We do not suggest that such a conviction could be saved even by overwhelming evidence that the defendant would have pleaded guilty regardless.’ Id.” (Slip op. at 10).

Even though the state court applied the wrong harmless error standard because it required Dansberry to show he was denied “real justice” or suffered “prejudice,”  the Seventh Circuit concludes the error was harmless:

…the record shows that Dansberry’s minimum sentence had little, if any, influence on his decision. He was much more concerned about his maximum sentence; he wanted to avoid being executed. He pled guilty largely because he expected he would receive about 40 years of incarceration instead. When he did plead, he did so “blindly,” without any promise of a particular sentence, even though he had been informed that he could receive life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison. It is highly unlikely, and there is no evidence in the record to suggest, that Dansberry’s mistaken belief that his minimum sentence was 20 years rather than 26 years had any effect on his decision to plead guilty. (Slip op. at 12-13).

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