Recently, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals cases has been getting some attention because it changed the way courts consider prior North Carolina state convictions when a person is facing enhanced drug sentences in federal courts. The case is United States v. Simmons, No. 08-4475 (4th Cir. Aug. 17, 2011) (en banc).
Jason Edward Simmons pled guilty to a federal drug trafficking charge under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B)(vii), which carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. That statute also carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for people whose sentences are enhanced under 21 U.S.C. § 851 because of an offender’s prior conviction for a drug offense that was “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.” The federal prosecutors sought to enhance Simmons’ sentence to the 10-year mandatory minimum, based on his prior North Carolina state conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana. The question in the case was whether this prior state conviction was “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.” If it was, Simmons could get the 10-year mandatory sentence. If it was not, Simmons would face only the five-year mandatory minimum sentence.
North Carolina’s sentencing system is controlled by a statute, and sentences are calculated based on the class of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. Under North Carolina law, Simmons’ prior conviction was a “Class I” felony. It carried a potential sentence of more than one year in prison, but only if two conditions were met: (1) certain aggravating factors were present and (2) Simmons had a “prior record level” of at least 5. Neither condition was met in Simmons’s case. Nonetheless, the U.S. District Court decided that Simmons’s prior North Carolina conviction allowed the federal prosecutors to enhance his mandatory minimum sentence to 10 years. The district court relied on a Fourth Circuit case that held that North Carolina state convictions were “punishable by more than one year” if such a sentence could hypothetically apply to an offender with the worst possible criminal history, not the actual offender’s actual criminal history. So, even though Simmons did not actually have the worst possible criminal history (which would make his maximum prison sentence longer than one year), Simmons was considered convicted of a crime that was “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.” He was given the enhanced 10-year mandatory minimum, which the Fourth Circuit upheld on appeal both before and after the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for resentencing.
On a rehearing en banc, the Fourth Circuit changed its mind by a vote of 8-5. The court vacated Simmons’s sentence and remanded it for resentencing again. In the case of Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 130 S. Ct. 2577 (2010), the Supreme Court had rejected using a “hypothetical defendant” approach when deciding whether prior convictions were “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.” Simmons’s prior North Carolina state conviction was not “punishable by imprisonment for more than one year” because the maximum potential sentence Simmons faced for that crime depended on his actual criminal history. Instead of using a hypothetical defendant with a criminal history higher than Simmons’s, the court had to decide what the possible maximum sentence would be for a defendant with Simmons’s criminal history. Under North Carolina state law, someone with Simmons’s criminal history would never face a prison sentence of more than one year for the crime Simmons committed. This meant that Simmons’s prior state conviction did not allow the federal prosecutors to seek a 10-year enhanced mandatory minimum sentence for Simmons’s federal drug offense. The decision in Simmons adds the Fourth Circuit to the list of two other circuits who analyze North Carolina’s sentencing system this way.
FAMM does not know who or how many people might benefit from the Simmons decision. There is nothing in the decision itself that explicitly makes the ruling retroactive. If you have prior convictions for North Carolina state crimes, those convictions were used to enhance a federal mandatory minimum sentence, and you believe that Simmons may benefit you, you should contact a lawyer. FAMM cannot provide people with legal advice or help.
You can read the full Simmons opinion by clicking here.