Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Prior conviction is predicate for sentencing enhancement in illegal reentry case

US v. Valdovinos:  In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit considers a novel issue, whether a prior conviction under North Carolina’s Structured Sentence Act, imposed after a binding plea agreement to a sentence of less than one year, is a predicate felony offense for purposes of the sentencing enhancement applicable to those convicted of illegal reentry after deportation.  Valdovinos pleaded guilty in North Carolina state court in 2008 to selling heroin, a conviction which carried a maximum penalty of 16 months in prison; by virtue of Valdovinos’ plea agreement, however, he received a sentence of 10-12 months.  Under NC law, once the judge accepted the plea, the judge was forced to sentence him within the range recommended in the plea agreement.  Valdovinos was deported after serving this sentence.  In May 2013, he returned to North Carolina, got arrested for resisting a public officer, and received an illegal reentry charge, to which he pleaded guilty.

Valdovinos objected to the application of this sentencing enhancement because his prior conviction did not, in his view, qualify as a felony under the Guidelines as his sentence was between 10 and 12 months, less than a term exceeding one year, as defined in the Guideline.  His prior conviction could not serve as a predicate offense, he argued, to enhance his sentence for illegal reentry.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s imposition of the sentencing enhancement for illegal reentry defendants with prior felony offenses, because North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing Act, not Valdovinos’ plea agreement, determined whether a defendant’s conviction was punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, qualifying as a federal sentencing predicate.  The dissent lambasts the majority holding, and the panel’s decision to hinder the progress of federal sentencing jurisprudence with its decision, and is totally worth reading (begins on page 19 of the published opinion).

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