RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Raleigh
DOCKET NO.: 10-5258
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
CITATION: 563 US 816 (2011)
GRANTED: Jan 07, 2011
ARGUED: Apr 25, 2011
DECIDED: Jun 06, 2011
Curtis E. Gannon - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Stephen C. Gordon - for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Clifton Terelle McNeill was sentenced to 300 months imprisonment after he was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm and 240 months imprisonment for unlawful possession with intent to distribute approximately 3.1 grams of crack cocaine.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina determined McNeill to be an armed career criminal and then departed upward from the United States Sentencing Guidelines to sentence McNeill to the maximum sentence applicable. McNeill contends that he is not eligible for sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act because the drug-related convictions upon which the district court relied do not qualify as serious drug offenses under the ACCA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed the district court order.
Can a conviction under state law be treated as a serious drug offense for purposes of a longer sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, if the state law violated did not at the time of federal sentencing set a maximum prison term of at least 10 years, but had done so at the time the crime was committed?
Media for McNeill v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 25, 2011 in McNeill v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 06, 2011 in McNeill v. United States
This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to United States Court of the Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, known as ACCA, a felon who unlawfully possesses a firearm is subject to a 15-year minimum prison sentence if he has -- has three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.
As relevant here, the statute defines a serious drug offense as a state drug trafficking offense for which "a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more is prescribed by law".
The question in this case is how a federal sentencing court should determine what maximum sentence is prescribed by law for a defendant's previous state drug offense.
Petitioner Clifton McNeill pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
The District Court determined that ACCA applied based in part on McNeill's six prior state drug trafficking convictions.
McNeill argued that his prior convictions were not for serious drug offenses because, although those offenses each carried a 10-year maximum sentence.
When he was convicted of them, the State had since reduced the maximum penalty for those offenses.
The District Court rejected McNeill's argument and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals to determine the maximum term of imprisonment for prior state offense for ACCA purposes.
A federal sentencing court must consult the law that applied to the defendant's offense at the time of his state conviction for that offense.
The plain text of the statute allows no other interpretation.
The opinion of the Court is unanimous.