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Supreme Court Makes Armed Career Criminal Act Ruling: Brown

The Supreme Court held that state drug offenses count as ACCA predicates if they Involved a Drug on the Federal Schedules at the Time of the Offense.

This case involves two persons who were charged with 922(g) offenses and enhanced by the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Two Separate Cases, Two ACCA Enhancements

Brown sold drugs to police officers in a series of controlled buys. The police officers conducted a search pursuant to a warrant of his home and found a gun. He pled guilty to and was sentenced pursuant to the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") because of Pennsylvania convictions for drug possession with intent to distribute. While his charge was pending, the federal congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 which exempted some hemp from the definition of Marijuana. Brown argued that the convictions did not qualify because the marijuana convictions no longer qualified as ACCA predicates “because he violated section 922(g) when the federal and state definitions of marijuana were a categorical match.”

Jackson was at a food market when the police drove up to execute an unrelated search warrant. He ran away and discarded a firearm. The officers charged him with a 922(g) offense. Jackson’s PSR identified several Florida convictions as ACCA predicates including for cocaine. But between his charge and sentencing the federal government legalized a radioactive cocaine derivative called ioflupane which is to assist people who are suspected of having Parkinson’s. “So when Jackson committed his federal offense, the federal and Florida definitions were no longer a categorical match.”

Both cases were sentenced under the ACCA’s mandatory minimum. On appeal, “the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that a prior drug conviction is an ACCA predicate if the state and federal definitions of the drug matched when the defendant committed the state offense.”  The parties offered different opinions on how the court should handle it.

State Drug Offenses Count as ACCA Predicates if They Involved a Drug on the Federal Schedules at the Time of the Offense

Writing for the court, Justice Alito indicated that “a state drug conviction counts as an ACCA predicate if it involved a drug on the federal schedules at the time of that offense.”

Justice Alito indicated that the ACCA is a recidivist statute that gauges what a defendant’s “history of criminal activity” says about their “culpability and dangerousness.”  The court indicated that the ACCA requires sentencing courts to examine the law as it was when the defendant violated it even if that law is subsequently amended. The court noted that the plain language of 924(e)(2)(A)(i) said the same:

“Section 924(e)(2)(A)(i) defines a ‘serious drug offense’ to include certain federal drug crimes, namely, “offense[s] under the Controlled Substances Act…or two other federal laws.…Any crime contained in the CSA is an offense ‘under the [CSA].’ The standard ‘Judgment in a Criminal Case’ used in federal courts indicates whether a defendant was convicted and sentenced for such an offense, and a later change in a federal drug schedule cannot change that fact.”

The court also noted that counting a state drug conviction as an ACCA predicate because it involved a drug on the federal schedules at the time of that offense met the ACCA’s statutory objectives:

“Congress’s ‘general approach’ in ACCA was to single out ‘offenses of a certain level of seriousness that involve violence or an inherent risk…’  Because defendants who have repeatedly committed ACCA predicate offenses are ‘especially likely to inflict grave harm when in possession of a firearm,’ ACCA imposes a higher punishment when they do so… It therefore makes sense to ask, as the Government does, whether a prior offense met ACCA’s definition of seriousness—and thus suggested future danger—at the time it was committed.”

Ultimately the court determined that “a state drug conviction counts as an ACCA predicate if it involved a drug on the federal schedules at the time of that offense.”  No. 22–6389

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