People v. Saarela

Decision Date13 October 2022
Docket Number356440
PartiesPEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. DANIEL J. SAARELA, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US


Gogebic Circuit Court LC No. 20-000095-FH

Before: K. F. Kelly, P.J., and Borrello and Cameron, JJ.


Defendant Daniel J. Saarela appeals as of right his jury trial convictions of possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine, MCL 333.7401(2)(b)(i); possession with intent to deliver less than 50 grams of heroin, MCL 333.7401(2)(a)(iv); possession of a dangerous weapon (metallic knuckles), MCL 750.224(1); possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm), MCL 750.227b; felon in possession of a firearm (felon-in-possession), MCL 750.224f; and operating a motor vehicle without a valid license (OWL), MCL 257.904a Defendant was sentenced as a fourth-offense habitual offender, MCL 769.12, to 15 to 30 years' imprisonment for his possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine conviction, 10 to 20 years' imprisonment for his possession with intent to deliver heroin conviction, 2 to 5 years' imprisonment for his possession of a dangerous weapon and felon-in-possession convictions, 2 years' imprisonment for his felony-firearm conviction,[1] and 90 days' imprisonment for his OWL conviction. We affirm.


This case arises from an April 21, 2020 early-morning traffic stop and search of defendant's vehicle. While on patrol at 2:30 a.m., Gogebic County Deputy Sheriff Cody Smith[2] observed a dark-colored SUV traveling in the opposite lane of traffic with a nonfunctioning headlight. The SUV was outfitted with a brush guard that was "tilted forward." About a week before the traffic stop, Deputy Smith had received an anonymous tip that defendant would be traveling through Gogebic County in a similar vehicle. The tipster said that defendant would have with him a large amount of methamphetamine and that he was possibly armed. Deputy Smith opened an investigation and found defendant's social media account that displayed an SUV with a brush guard installed improperly, causing it to tilt forward.

Deputy Smith executed a traffic stop of the vehicle. During the stop, he observed a loaded syringe on the passenger-side floorboard. He also noticed a "torch" sticking out of a black camera bag in the backseat. On the basis of this evidence, Deputy Smith and other officers conducted a search of defendant's vehicle where they discovered a number of drug-related items. These included: six bindles[3] of suspected heroin, a bag of suspected methamphetamine, a methamphetamine pipe, two "hot rails,"[4] a dollar bill on top of one of the scales, a silver scoop, a "bubble,"[5] packaging material, a Pyrex container containing crumbs of partially burned suspected methamphetamine or heroin, multiple loaded and unloaded syringes, $100 bills, $20 bills, and prescription bottles containing marijuana. Field and laboratory tests confirmed that the substances were methamphetamine and heroin. The officers also discovered a .22-caliber revolver and a pair of metallic knuckles.

Deputy Smith interviewed Destiny Caudill, defendant's passenger, who admitted the pair had spent the day before the stop selling methamphetamine to various individuals in and around Gogebic County. Defendant was arrested and, in a separate interview, he admitted to possessing the metallic knuckles, but denied knowledge of the revolver and the drug paraphernalia. Defendant was convicted and sentenced as noted. This appeal followed.


Defendant raises several arguments contending that defense counsel was ineffective. We disagree with each.


Because defendant did not raise the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel through a motion for new trial or a Ginther[6] hearing, our review is limited to mistakes apparent from the record. People v Heft, 299 Mich.App. 69, 80; 829 N.W.2d 266 (2012). The question of ineffective assistance of counsel is "a mixed question of fact and constitutional law." People v LeBlanc, 465 Mich. 575, 579; 640 N.W.2d 246 (2002). The trial court's factual findings are reviewed for clear error and questions of constitutional law are reviewed de novo. Id.


"The defendant has the burden of establishing the factual predicate of his ineffective assistance claim." People v Douglas, 496 Mich. 557, 592; 852 N.W.2d 587 (2014). To establish the right to a new trial premised on ineffective assistance of counsel, "a defendant must show that (1) counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) but for counsel's deficient performance, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different." People v Trakhtenberg, 493 Mich. 38, 51; 826 N.W.2d 136 (2012)." 'A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.'" People v Randolph, 502 Mich. 1 9; 917 N.W.2d 249 (2018), quoting Strickland v Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694; 104 S.Ct. 2052; 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). It is presumed that defense counsel was effective, and a defendant must overcome the strong presumption that counsel's performance was sound trial strategy. Trakhtenberg, 493 Mich. at 52.


Defendant first argues that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel because defense counsel did not object to what he alleges is Deputy Smith's "expert testimony" without first being qualified as an expert. Specifically, defendant challenges Deputy Smith's testimony that the weight of the drugs, the presence of drug paraphernalia such as scales, the packaging of the drugs, and the additional packaging materials found in the vehicle were indicative of defendant's intent to deliver the drugs to others.

Defendant is correct that the prosecutor did not move to qualify Deputy Smith as an expert in the area of street-level narcotics distribution and trafficking. However, defendant does not argue that Deputy Smith was not qualified to provide expert testimony, nor does he argue that the trial court would not have properly qualified Deputy Smith as an expert. Indeed, citing People v Boyd, 65 Mich.App. 11, 14-15; 236 N.W.2d 744 (1975), he acknowledges that an expert can be qualified on the basis of academic training or practical experience. Rather, defendant merely argues that because the prosecutor did not move under MRE 702[7] to qualify Deputy Smith as an expert in what constitutes possession with intent to deliver as opposed to simple possession, defense counsel's lack of objection to Deputy Smith's testimony did not constitute reasonable trial strategy.

While defense counsel could have objected to Deputy Smith's testimony under MRE 702, declining to raise an objection can often be considered sound trial strategy. A reviewing court should not substitute its judgment or second-guess defense counsel's strategy with the benefit of hindsight. People v Unger, 278 Mich.App. 210, 242-243; 749 N.W.2d 272 (2008). Defense counsel's theory was that defendant was merely present and that defendant happened to be associated with those who committed the crimes in this case. "The fact that defense counsel's strategy may not have worked does not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel." People v Stewart, 219 Mich.App. 38, 42; 555 N.W.2d 715 (1996). Defense counsel's failure to object to Deputy Smith's opinion of the evidence appears in line with counsel's trial strategy of implicating others in the distribution scheme and does not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel.

It is also noteworthy that defendant does not assert ineffective assistance of counsel with respect to defense counsel's failure to object to the testimony of Officer Josiah Hewitt, another officer involved in the search of defendant's vehicle. Like Deputy Smith, Officer Hewitt testified that he could distinguish simple possession from possession with intent to deliver and that, on the basis of what he observed-scales, packaging material, and substances wrapped in packaging material-he would characterize this case as one involving possession with intent to deliver. Although the officers' testimonies were similar, defendant's failure to assert error with respect to Officer Hewitt's testimony undermines his argument that defense counsel was ineffective.


Next, defendant argues that defense counsel was ineffective when counsel failed to raise an objection that Caudill's testimony was unreliable. In defendant's view, Caudill's testimony was unreliable because (1) she lacked personal knowledge of any drug transactions; and (2) Caudill "had worked out a dela [sic] in exchange for her testimony."[8]

MRE 602 states in part: "[a] witness may not testify to a matter unless evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has knowledge of the matter. Evidence to prove personal knowledge may, but need not, consist of the witness' own testimony." According to defendant, Caudill lacked personal knowledge of any drug transactions by defendant, and any assertion by Caudill that defendant conducted a drug transaction was on the basis of Caudill's "assumption" that a drug transaction had occurred.

In making this argument, defendant points to Caudill's statements that she had received drugs from another party and that she only assumed some of the paraphernalia belonged to defendant. Yet, in addition to these statements, Caudill also reported defendant's role in the drug transactions-specifically, that defendant would "weigh[] . . . up" the methamphetamine before each sale and Caudill would deliver it to the customer. Although Caudill's testimony could be construed as demonstrating some...

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