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Eighth Circuit Vacates ACCA enhancement: Owen

Owen argued that the state definition for cocaine caused the statute of conviction to be overbroad. He won and his enhancement was vacated.

Facts:  Repeat Offender Challenges Enhancement due to Overbroad State Statute.

Owen was enhanced at sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, or ACCA.  In the past he pled guilty to committing the third-degree offense of selling cocaine twice in Minnesota.  These were used in his ACCA enhancement. (Note: The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) sets a fifteen-year minimum sentence for anyone who possesses a firearm as a felon and has “three previous convictions ... for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.”  See 18 USC 924(e))

On appeal, Owen argued that the enhancement was inappropriate and that the state definition swept more broadly or punished more conduct than the federal statute and as such, the state cocaine sale charges could not qualify as a federal offense.

How Statutes Are Interpreted for Enhancements

“The way to determine whether a state statute ‘sweeps more broadly’ is by examining its text and structure…Sometimes, a statute lays out a single crime with a single set of elements…In analyzing this type, a so-called ‘indivisible’ statute, we simply check to see if it ‘criminalizes a broader swath of conduct’ than the generic offense or federal definition, whichever happens to apply… The task becomes more difficult, however, if a statute is ‘divisible,’ meaning it defines “multiple crimes by listing more than one set of elements.’ … Divisible statutes call for a modified categorical approach, which involves peeking at certain documents to identify “what crime, with what elements, a defendant was convicted of.” … (listing documents included in this ‘limited class’—otherwise known as Shepard documents—as “the indictment, jury instructions, or plea agreement and colloquy”). Then, once we identify the specific crime, we determine whether it reaches “more conduct than the federal definition” (or the generic offense) …If the answer is yes, the conviction does not count under ACCA.”

Court:  Minnesota's Cocaine Definition is too Broad

The court noted that “to count, both convictions must be ‘serious drug offense[s]’: crimes “involving” the distribution of a drug listed in the federal controlled-substance schedules.”

The parties agreed that Minnesota’s third-degree drug sale statute is divisible based on the type of drug. But Minnesota uses its own definition for cocaine:

“coca leaves and any salt, compound, derivative, or preparation of coca leaves, including cocaine and ecgonine, the salts and isomers of cocaine and ecgonine, and the salts of their isomers and any salt, compound, derivative, or preparation thereof that is chemically equivalent or identical with any of those substances.”

The court noted that “[b]y specifically mentioning “the ... isomers of cocaine,” the definition sweeps in any substance with “the same chemical composition” as cocaine, even if it has a different “structural form.”  While federal law criminalizes just two isomers, Minnesota’s statute bans all of them.   This makes the state statute broader than the federal statute and as such the state convictions can’t be used to enhance Owen to the ACCA:  “This means that Owen's third-degree drug-sale convictions do not count as “serious drug offense[s]” under ACCA”

This meant that Owen did not have the requisite amount of priors to receive an enhancement under the ACCA and that Owen was to be resentenced.  No. 21-3870

If anything here applies to you, contact us today.

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