Court To Hear Offender's Appeal


Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court agreed to decide whether criminals seeking to avoid stiff, career-offender prison sentences in federal court can attack the validity of their earlier state court convictions.

The justices said Friday they will use the case of a California five-time loser to decide an issue that has split the federal appeals courts.

The court's 2000-2001 term will not begin until Oct. 2 but the justices occasionally grant review to cases during their summer recess. Arguments in the California case likely will be heard in December.

Clinton administration lawyers did not oppose Earthy Daniels' appeal to the nation's highest court even though they said a federal appeals court correctly blocked his challenge to prior state court convictions.

The question raised by Daniels' appeal ``has divided the courts of appeals, recurs with frequency (and) is important to the stability of federal sentences,'' Justice Department lawyers told the nation's highest court.

Daniels was convicted in a California court of illegal possession of a gun. He received a 16-month prison sentence. His case was referred to federal authorities, and Daniels subsequently was sentenced to nearly 15 years in prison under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

The law requires defendants convicted of possessing a firearm after a felony conviction to be sentenced to long prison terms if they had previous convictions for violent crimes.

Daniels previously had been convicted in state courts — twice for burglary and twice for robbery.

He attacked the federal sentence, contending that at least two of his state court convictions were tainted because he had been denied effective legal help before pleading guilty.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Daniels could not use a challenge to his federal sentence to attack the underlying state court convictions.

The appeals court relied heavily on a 1994 Supreme Court decision in which the justices limited defendants' ability to challenge previous convictions after being sentenced under federal laws aimed at punishing habitual criminals.

``Congress did not prescribe and the Constitution does not require such delay and protraction of the federal sentencing process,'' the court said back then. But the 1994 decision made an exception for defendants who challenge prior federal convictions based on a claim they were denied effective legal help.

The case acted on Friday is Daniels v. U.S., 99-9136.

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On the Net: For the appeals court ruling: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 9th Circuit.