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Supreme Court rules in sentencing enhancement cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] handed down decisions in three cases Wednesday, including Burgess v. US [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report], where the Court held that a defendant's federal drug sentence can be enhanced under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) [text] when the defendant has previously been convicted of a state drug offense punishable by more than one year, even if that offense is classified as a misdemeanor, not a felony. Burgess pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base, and prosecutors sought to double the normal 10-year minimum sentence to 20 years based on provisions of the CSA. Burgess had previously been convicted in South Carolina of cocaine possession, a crime classified under state law as a misdemeanor. Burgess argued that because he had not been convicted of a "felony," his federal sentence should not be enhance based on the "felony drug offense" provision [21 USC 841(b)(1)(A)] of the CSA. The Supreme Court disagreed with Burgess and affirmed the Fourth Circuit's decision [PDF text] in the case, writing:

Two statutory definitions figure in our decision. Section 802(13) defines the unadorned term "felony" to mean any "offense classified by applicable Federal or State law as a felony." Section 802(44) defines the compound term "felony drug offense" to mean an offense involving specified drugs that is "punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of the United States or of a State or foreign country."

The term "felony drug offense" contained in §841(b)(1)(A)'s provision for a 20-year minimum sentence, we hold, is defined exclusively by §802(44) and does not incorporate §802(13)'s definition of "felony." A state drug offense punishable by more than one year therefore qualifies as a "felony drug offense," even if state law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor.
Read the Court's unanimous opinion [text] per Justice Ginsburg.

In Begay v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder], the Court ruled that convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol do not trigger enhanced sentencing for prior "violent felony" convictions under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Begay pleaded guilty to felony possession of a firearm, and the federal judge presiding over his case imposed an enhanced 15-year sentence under the Act, which allows the longer prison term when a defendant has at least three prior convictions for certain drug crimes or "violent felonies." Begay had 12 separate convictions in New Mexico for driving under the influence. The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit allowed the enhanced sentencing [opinion, PDF], but the Supreme Court reversed, concluding that "New Mexico's crime of 'driving under the influence' falls outside the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act's clause (ii) 'violent felony' definition." Read the Court's opinion [text] per Justice Breyer, along with a concurrence [text] from Justice Scalia, and a dissent [text] from Justice Alito.

Finally, in Baze v. Rees, the Court ruled that a three-drug lethal injection protocol used in Kentucky and many other states does not violate the Constitution [JURIST report].

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