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.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Court Upholds Convictions, Sentences In Large Drug Conspiracy Case

US v. Foster: Foster, Moses, and Taylor were all involved in a massive conspiracy to sell drugs in West Baltimore (the statement of facts makes it sound exactly like something out of Homicide: Life on the Street or The Wire). The conspiracy lasted for three years and included multiple murders and a kidnapping. In the end, all three defendants were convicted at trial of conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack. Foster was also convicted of witness tampering, a 924(c) violation, and carjacking; Moses of three counts of murder in relation to a drug trafficking crime and one 924(c) violation; and Taylor of one count of murder and one count of witness tampering. All three were sentenced to life in prison on the conspiracy count, with concurrent sentences imposed for the other offenses, including life on the murder charges (the jury after the capital sentencing phase recommended life rather than death).

On appeal, the defendants raise many issues that were quickly rejected by the Fourth Circuit. First, the court rejected the argument that the Government, through a statement during closing argument, constructively amended the indictment to widen the scope of the charged conspiracy. Second, the court rejected a claim by Taylor and Moses that the district court's response to a jury question during deliberations regarding who they could have aided and abetted with in relation to one of the murders. Third, the court rejected sufficiency of the evidence arguments raised by all three defendants. Finally, the court rejected the argument that the district court erred by only having the jury determine the amount of drugs attributable to the conspiracy as a whole, rather than to each defendant specifically.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Identity Evidence Suppressable

US v. Oscar-Torres: Oscar-Torres was arrested as part of a project to round up illegal immigrants who were also alleged gang members. It went like this:
On July 22, 2005, ICE agents and Raleigh police officers went to the Fox Ridge Manor apartment complex in Raleigh, the last known address of a number of suspected gang members. Several teams of officers went to individual apartments seeking to arrest specific gang members. One team stationed itself at the only entrance to the complex and stopped all vehicles entering and leaving in order to question the occupants.

The officers stationed at the entrance stopped and questioned Oscar-Torres, among others. In response to their questions, he admitted to being an illegal alien and, at their request, lifted his shirt to display a tattoo that they believed signified gang membership. Without a warrant, the officers then arrested Oscar-Torres and transported him to ICE headquarters . . ..
There he was fingerprinted and interrogated (sans Miranda warnings), during which it was discovered that Oscar-Torres had been previously deported for entering the country illegally. He was charged with illegal reentry.

Prior to trial, Oscar-Torres moved to suppress the evidence against him that was secured as a result of his arrest, including his statements and the fingerprints. The district court concluded that the arrest was illegal and ordered Oscar-Torres's statement suppressed. However, the court refused to suppress the fingerprints, holding that evidence of identity could never be suppressed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed. It noted that there was a split in the circuits (and within the Ninth Circuit, apparently) on the issue of whether evidence of identity could be suppressed, stemming from different interpretations of language in INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 US 1032 (1984). The Fourth Circuit adopted the view that the language in Lopez-Mendoza only stands for the proposition that courts are not deprived of jurisdiction over a defendant because of an illegal arrest. It therefore reversed the district court's blanket rule and remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the court is to examine whether the fingerprints were taken with investigatory purposes in mind (not OK) or as part of the administrative arrest/booking process (OK).