Monday, August 22, 2011

Court Reverses on North Carolina Priors

US v. Simmons: Simmons was convicted on a federal drug charge and faced an enhanced sentence for a prior drug conviction "punishable by imprisonment for more than one year." The prior at issue was a North Carolina conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana. A "Class I" felony, it carried a potential sentence of more than one year in prison only if (a) certain aggravating factors were present and (b) Simmons had a "prior record level" of at least 5. Neither condition was met in Simmons's case. Nevertheless, the district court found that Simmons's prior qualified him for an enhanced sentence, applying an old Fourth Circuit case which held that the applicable potential maximum sentence in such cases was based on an offender with the worst possible criminal history. A panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed that sentence, both before and after a remand from the Supreme Court.

On a rehearing en banc, the court changed course, 8-5, and vacated Simmons's sentence. The court, via Judge Motz, concluded that the Supreme Court expressly rejected the "hypothetical defendant" approach for analyzing North Carolina convictions. Because a defendant's maximum potential sentence on an offense in North Carolina is tied directly to his criminal history, the correct analysis is to determine what the maximum sentence possible a defendant with the same criminal history could have received (the actual sentence received is, of course, irrelevant). That brings the Fourth Circuit into line with the other two circuits that have looked at the North Carolina system.

Judge Agee led the dissenters, arguing that the language of the enhancement statute talks about an "offense" that is "punishable" by a certain potential sentence and does not allow for any consideration of a particular defendant's criminal history.

Congrats the Defender office in Western North Carolina, which headed up the amicus forces on this win!

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