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Supreme Court rules seriousness of drug offense determined at time of conviction

The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] unanimously ruled [opinion, PDF] on Monday in McNeill v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a federal sentencing court must determine whether "an offense under State law" is a "serious drug offense" under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) [18 USC § 924] by consulting the "maximum term of imprisonment" applicable to a defendant's prior state drug offense at the time of the defendant's conviction for that offense. Clifton McNeill was arrested in 2007 after police discovered a firearm and 3.1 grams of cocaine during a search incident to arrest for eluding a traffic stop. In light of previous drug convictions in 1992 and 1995, McNeill was convicted under the ACCA. The previous convictions and sentencing structure met the definitions of a "serious drug offense" at the time they were committed, but the statutory sentences for those offenses were reduced in later years and do not currently meet the ACCA definition. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] held [opinion, PDF] that the ACCA still applied regardless of the subsequent statutory changes. The Supreme Court affirmed the appeal court's ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas indicated in his opinion that the statute's plain meaning provides the basis for the court's decision:

The plain text of ACCA requires a federal sentencing court to consult the maximum sentence applicable to a defendant's previous drug offense at the time of his conviction for that offense. The statute requires the court to determine whether a "previous conviction" was for a serious drug offense. The only way to answer this backward-looking question is to consult the law that applied at the time of that conviction.
Furthermore, despite present-tense language in the statute, the Court determined that the applicable law is that which was in place at the time of the conviction.

Beginning October 1, 1994, North Carolina reduced the maximum sentence for selling cocaine from 10 years to 38 months and the maximum sentence for possessing cocaine with intent to sell to 30 months. Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] rejected [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] a prisoner's attempt to have new crack cocaine sentencing guidelines applied retroactively to reduce his sentence. The three-judge panel found that it could not infer congressional intent to apply the Fair Sentencing Act [S 1789 materials] to prisoners already convicted and serving the prior mandatory minimum.

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