Posted on 18 Aug 2011
Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that is incredibly significant for criminal defendants facing enhanced sentences in federal court. Under select federal criminal statutes, most notably laws concerning guns and drugs, defendants often face sentence enhancements that are triggered by their prior record. These enhancements can add several years, and in some cases decades, to a defendant’s sentence.
Enhancements often are triggered by prior convictions that are “punishable” by a certain amount of time. In United States v. Simmons, the defendant faced such an enhancement because of a prior conviction for a “felony drug offense.” The Controlled Substance Act defines a “felony drug offense” as a drug-related crime that is “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year[.]” Before yesterday’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit instructed trial courts to identify a person’s prior offense, and then determine the maximum term of imprisonment the prior crime would carry for a hypothetical defendant with the worst possible criminal history. If this hypothetical defendant could have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment exceeding one year, the prior offense was considered a “felony drug offense,” thus triggering the enhancement. This was true even if the actual defendant before the court could not have possibly received a similar sentence.
For example, in Simmons, the defendant had a prior drug-related conviction for a Class I felony. When he was convicted of that offense, he had a clean record. Therefore, under the North Carolina Structured Sentencing Act, the most severe punishment that he could have received was probation based on his individual circumstances. In fact, the judge who sentenced him on his underlying charge was not even allowed to sentence him to one day of imprisonment. Nonethless, because a hypothetical defendant with a much worse record could have received jail time exceeding one year, under then-existing precedent, the federal court that sentenced Simmons under the Controlled Substance Act deemed the conviction a “felony drug offense,” resulting in the sentence enhancement.
In yesterday’s opinion, the Fourth Circuit rejected its prior, well-established precedent. Now, an individualized assessment of each defendant’s criminal history must be undertaken when determining whether federal sentence enhancements can apply. Instead of using a hypothetical defendant as a model, each person’s prior offenses must be analyzed within the framework of their own particular situation and criminal history.
Simmons’ reach and impact is significant. As observed by the court, the prior rule, which required “federal courts to treat even minor state crimes as serious felonies—makes a mockery of North Caroilna’s carefully crafted sentencing scheme. It also disregards the rationale of [a Supreme Court ruling], which emphasized that federal courts should not apply hypothetical sentencing enhancements ‘after the fact’ in a manner that would ‘denigrate the independent judgment of state prosecutors to execute the laws’ of their states.”
In short, Simmons, along with Congress’ recent passing of the Fair Sentencing Act (reducing the 100-1 crack/cocaine sentencing disparity), reflects some recognition by the federal government that a harsh culture of over and mass incarceration has resulted in excessive sentences under the federal criminal justice system that are not warranted by the crimes that they are intended to punish.