Friday, November 16, 2007

South Carolina Youthful Offender Sentence Is "Serious Drug Offense" Under ACCA

US v. Williams: Williams pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. In the PSR, the probation officer recommended that Williams be treated as an Armed Career Criminal because of three prior qualifying convictions. Williams did not dispute the convictions, but argued that a prior South Carolina drug conviction, for which he was sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act, did not meet the definition of "serious drug offense" in the ACCA, because the maximum term to be served as a Youthful Offender is six years in prison. The district court disagreed and sentenced Williams to 180 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirms. The court notes that the ACCA's definition of "serious drug offense" includes only those drug offenses with a statutory maximum penalty of more than 10 years in prison. The South Carolina statute under which Williams was previously convicted provides for a maximum sentence of 15 years. However, if the court exercises its discretion under the Youthful Offender Act, the maximum sentence is only six years. The Fourth Circuit concluded that, for ACCA purposes, the maximum potential sentence was the 15-year term in the violated statute, not the six-year Youthful Offender term. The Youthful Offender designation is entirely discretionary on the state sentencing court's part and the plea colloquy in Williams's case showed that the court could have declined that designation. Therefore, the maximum sentence to which Williams was exposed by that conviction was 15 years, making it a serious drug offense under the ACCA.

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