RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay
DOCKET NO.: 06-11429
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
CITATION: 553 US 124 (2008)
GRANTED: Dec 07, 2007
ARGUED: Mar 24, 2008
DECIDED: Apr 16, 2008
Jeffrey L. Fisher - on behalf of the Petitioner
Nicole A. Saharsky - on behalf of the Respondent
Facts of the case
When Keith Burgess pleaded guilty to a drug distribution charge in 2003, the government requested that his statutory minimum sentence be increased from ten to twenty years. The government based this request on 21 U.S.C. Section 841(b)(1)(A), which requires such a sentencing hike for defendants with prior felony drug convictions. The statute defined "felony drug offense" as any felony under any provision of the statute or any other federal law. Burgess argued that this definition conflicts with 21 U.S.C. Section 802(13) which requires that a felony drug offense be punishable by imprisonment for more than a year. Therefore, any enhancement of his sentence must be barred unless both statutory definitions are fulfilled. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected Burgess' argument, the D.C. Circuit reached the opposite conclusion based on similar facts in 2004.
Did the Fourth Circuit err in determining that Burgess' sentencing hike for a drug distribution charge was sufficiently mandated by 21 U.S.C. Section 841(b)(1)(A), which requires such a hike for individuals with prior felony drug convictions regardless of length of imprisonment, when another federal statute, 21 U.S.C. Section 802, requires that a felony drug offense be "punishable by imprisonment for more than a year"?
Media for Burgess v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 2008 in Burgess v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 16, 2008 in Burgess v. United States
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Petitioner Keith Burgess pleaded guilty to a federal drug offense that ordinarily carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
That minimum doubles to 20 years for defendants previously convicted of a felony drug offense.
The question in this case is whether Burgess' prior South Carolina conviction for cocaine possession punishable by more than one year's imprisonment but classified by state law as a misdemeanor ranks as a felony drug offense.
Two statutory definitions figure in our decision.
The first defines the unadorned term felony to mean, any offense classified by applicable federal or state law as a felony.
The second defines the term felony drug offense to mean a drug offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of the United States or of the State or foreign country.
Burgess argues that a crime counts as a felony drug offense only if it qualifies under both definitions that is, the offense, he urges, must be both classified as a felony under the law of the punishing jurisdiction and punishable by more than one year in prison.
The government in contrast reads the definition of the term “felony drug offense” as the exclusive reference.
Defendants convicted of drug felonies in violation of federal law whose prior drug crimes were punishable by more than one year in prison.
The government urges must receive a 20-year minimum sentence regardless of the punishing jurisdictions classification of the prior offense.
The District Court agreed with the government as did the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
We granted review to resolve a circuit split, and now affirmed.
For purposes of the federal sentencing enhancement we hold, the definition of the compound term “felony drug offense,” and only that definition counts.
Among our reasons, Congress used the words, “felony drug offense” as a term of art.
A definition stating what a term means as the definition of felony drug offense does, generally excludes any unstated meaning.
Furthermore, in law books, the word felony is commonly defined to mean a crime punishable by more than one year in prison.
Defining felony drug offense just that way as Congress did, leaves no blank for a discrete statutory definition of felony to fill.
Our reading avoids anomalies that would arise if two different definitions governed the application of the 20-year federal minimum sentence.
The statutory definition of felony includes state and federal offenses but does not include foreign offenses.
Congress' definition of felony drug offense however, expressly includes foreign offenses, holding that both definitions apply moreover, would leave unanswered the appropriate classification of drug convictions in jurisdictions that do not label offenses as felonies or misdemeanors.
Our construction of the statute hardly renders the separate definition of felony extraneous, that definition is controlling for the many statutory provisions that use the word felony unmodified.
The statute's drafting history reinforces our reading of the legislative text.
In 1994, Congress amended the definition of felony drug offense.
It replaced the words “offense that is a felony under any law of the State,” with the words "offense that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of a State."
An evident purpose of the 1994 revision was to eliminate disparities resulting from divergent state classifications of offenses by adopting a uniform federal standard based solely on the authorized length of imprisonment.
Finally, Burgess urges us to decide the case in his favor based on the rule of lenity, the touchstone of that rule is statutory ambiguity because Congress expressly defined felony drug offense in the manner coherent, complete, and by all signs exclusive.
There is no ambiguity for the rule of lenity to resolve.
The Court's opinion is unanimous.