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Opinion analysis: Law at time of past conviction dispositive for ACCA

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), provides a sentencing enhancement of at least fifteen years for a felon unlawfully in possession of a firearm if he has three prior convictions for “violent felony” or a “serious drug offense.” The ACCA in turn defines a “serious drug offense” as “an offense under State law . . . for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.”   Yesterday in McNeill v. United States, the Court held that sentencing courts should look to the state law in effect at the time of the past conviction, rather than to the state law currently in effect, to determine whether the enhancement applies.

The petitioner in this case, Clifton Terelle McNeill, pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, along with a drug charge, in August 2008.  When the district court sought to apply the fifteen-year enhancement, McNeill conceded that he had two prior convictions for violent felonies, but he argued that his previous convictions for drug trafficking did not qualify as “serious drug offenses.” In McNeil’s view, although his convictions for selling cocaine and possession with intent to sell carried a maximum sentence of ten years when he was sentenced, North Carolina (where he was convicted) had subsequently reduced the sentences for those convictions to thirty-eight and thirty months, respectively.  In sentencing him, he continued, the district court should look at the law currently in effect to determine whether his prior convictions meet the ACCA criteria. The district court rejected that argument and instead applied the law in effect at the time of McNeill’s prior convictions, under which McNeill qualified for the enhancement.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed, albeit on a different ground. It reasoned that when North Carolina revised its sentencing scheme in 1994, it made the new reduced sentences inapplicable to crimes committed before October 1, 1994. Thus, even under current law, the Fourth Circuit reasoned, the old sentencing law would continue to apply to McNeill’s crimes, and the maximum sentence would still be ten years, rendering him eligible for the ACCA enhancement.

Yesterday, in a short and straightforward opinion by Justice Thomas, a unanimous Court affirmed.

The Court began with the text of the ACCA, which refers to to “previous convictions.” Consideration of previous convictions, the opinion explained, is a “backward-looking question,” which – notwithstanding the statute’s use of the present tense in the definition of “serious drug offense” – can only be answered by considering the law at the time of the conviction.

The Court next turned to its prior interpretations of the definition of “violent felony,” found in an adjacent provision of the ACCA. Because the Court has used the law at the time of a past conviction in “violent felony” cases notwithstanding present-tense language in that definition (in Taylor v. United States (1990) and James v. United States (2007)), it concluded that it should do the same here.

Finally, the Court posited that McNeill’s interpretation of the statute would lead to “absurd results.”   Specifically, some prior convictions could “disappear” if the law were revised such that there was no clear present analogue to a statute under which a felon had been convicted in the past. Moreover, two felons who committed identical crimes and received identical sentences could nonetheless be treated differently under the ACCA depending on exactly when they were sentenced under the ACCA.

Having articulated a rule, the Court easily concluded that McNeill’s previous drug offenses – indeed, all six of them – qualified as “serious drug offenses” for purposes of the ACCA enhancement. The Court did, however, reserve judgment on the question of what law would control under the ACCA if a state lowered the sentence for a crime and made the change retroactively applicable.

Recommended Citation: Amy Burns, Opinion analysis: Law at time of past conviction dispositive for ACCA, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 7, 2011, 1:54 PM),