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Armed Career Criminal Act: Defining Serious Drug Offense


McNeill v United States

The question of whether an offense is a “serious drug offense” for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act, should be determined with reference to the maximum term of imprisonment applicable at the time of conviction

McNeill v. United States 131 S. Ct. 2218 (2011).

Decided June 6, 2011 Supreme Court of the United States

Issue: ACCA stipulates that a felon unlawfully in possession of a firearm is subject to a 15-year minimum sentence if he has three prior convictions for a “violent felony or serious drug offense”. A serious drug offense is defined as one “for which the maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law,” (s924 (e) (2) (A) (ii).) The issue was whether a prior offense in respect of which the maximum sentence was formerly ten years ought still be regarded as a “serious offense” where the maximum term has since been reduced to less than ten years.

Holding: Held unanimously, the question as to whether an offense under State law is a “serious drug offense” is calculated with reference to the “maximum term of imprisonment” at the time of the defendant’s conviction of that offense.

Facts: In 2008 petitioner McNeill pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. s922(g) (1) and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base 21 U.S.C. s841(a)(1). In respect of the firearm offense, the North Carolina District Court sought to apply a 15 year minimum prison sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act on the basis that he had two convictions for “violent felonies” and one conviction for a “serious drug offense”. McNeill did not dispute that two of the prior convictions – namely assault with a deadly weapon and robbery were “violent felonies”. He did however argue that none of his six state drug trafficking convictions were for “serious drug offenses”.  When he had been convicted of them, the maximum sentence was 10 years (the sentence that he did in fact receive). In October 1994, after McNeill’s conviction, North Carolina reduced the maximums to 38 months for selling cocaine and 30 months for possession with intent to supply.

At his 2008 trial, McNeill argued that the prior drugs offenses should not be regarded as serious drugs offenses because they no longer carry 10 year maximum sentences. The District Court refused to look at current state sentencing law and concluded that the offenses should be regarded as serious drugs offenses because of the maximum sentence they carried at the time of conviction. The Court of Appeals and subsequently the Supreme Court affirmed.

Legal analysis: With Justice Clarence Thomas giving the opinion on what was a unanimous decision, the Court firstly considered the wording of the relevant statutory provision. A serious drug offense is one “for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law”. The Court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the use of the present tense in the phrase; “is prescribed by law” suggests that the current applicable maximum should be considered. On basic reading of the statute, it requires a court to determine whether a previous conviction was a serious drug conviction; and therefore it is a “backward-looking question”. A district court ought not to be concerned with the current treatment of the offense so far as sentencing is concerned, but rather on what the position was at the time of conviction. To do otherwise could give rise to unsatisfactory results; e.g. in those situations where a state revised its definition of an offense so that technically (if it were to be considered from the ‘present tense’ perspective as McNeill argued) it could potentially be regarded as no longer “existing”.