Thursday, December 03, 2015

Statutory penalties for priors controlling, not the sentence received

US v. Sellers:  James Morris Sellers challenged his qualification as an armed career criminal at sentencing for the unlawful possession of a firearm.  He had three prior South Carolina drug convictions for which he had been sentenced under South Carolina’s Youthful Offender Act.  This Act permits lower maximum penalties for certain offenders, a cap of six years of incarceration.  On appeal, Sellers argued that his priors did not qualify him as an armed career criminal because the sentences he had received were not sufficiently long enough to qualify as predicate offenses.  Here, the Fourth Circuit rejected Sellers’ argument that his sentences under the Youthful Offender Act did not qualify as ACCA predicates, reaffirming its earlier cases, Simmons and Williams.

The Fourth Circuit earlier held that whether a prior conviction qualifies as a predicate for a federal sentencing enhancement depends on the statutory penalty for the prior conviction, not the sentence the defendant may have received.  Sellers argued here on appeal that this holding was no longer good law, but the Fourth Circuit rejected that argument, holding instead that the maximum statutory penalty for the prior conviction(s) is unaffected by the state court’s exercise of its discretion to sentence a defendant to less than the maximum penalty.  Sellers, then, had properly been categorized as an armed career criminal for his three prior drug crimes, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed his sentence.

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