In The News: Defining A “Career Criminal” In Federal Court
What Constitutes a Career Criminal? ? 11th Circuit Opinion Raises Questions Regarding Categorization
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the federal appellate court that governs Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, confirmed the 17-and-a-half year prison sentence of 33-year-old Derek Jerome Brown.
Browns case began in October of 2012, when authorities heard from one of their confidential informants that Brown was selling cocaine out of his home in Waycross, Georgia. According to the courts opinion, the police department executed a search warrant based on the informants information.
Inside Browns home, they found a handgun, 15 rounds of ammunition, almost $1,000 in cash, and plastic bags containing what they suspected to be cocaine and marijuana.
A federal jury charged Brown with drug trafficking, gun possession in furtherance of a drug crime, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Brown agreed to plead guilty to the felon in possession charge and, in exchange, the government dropped the other charges.
Before being sentenced in federal court, court officers drew up what is known as a Presentence Investigation Report (PSIR) for Brown. This report is meant to give the sentencing judge information about the individual being sentenced and explain factors that may weigh in favor of a more or less lenient sentence.
At sentencing, Brown was surprised to learn that the PSIR had classified him as a career criminal under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The distinction of career criminal is given to any individual who has been convicted of three or more previous convictions, carrying a mandated minimum 15-year term imprisonment. Previous convictions can include violent felonies and serious drug offenses, the latter of which Brown was found guilty of twice before (both cocaine distribution charges). He was likewise convicted twice of felony obstructions of law enforcement officers (a Georgia law which is similar to many other state laws, including Floridas).
Suddenly, a conviction which generally carries a five to ten year prison sentence was threatening to leave Brown incarcerated for at least fifteen years.
The District Court judge sentenced Brown to 210 months in prison. Brown and his attorney immediately appealed the decision saying it was unreasonable and that he had been miscategorized as a career criminal. Browns stance was that because his two cocaine convictions were based on sales that had occurred just six minutes apart, they should not be considered two separate offenses under the ACCA.
The appellate court seems to side with Brown on this point. Because the sales took place so close together, they should not be used to categorize a felon as a career criminal. Unfortunately, the court noted that even counting the cocaine convictions as one act would change little. The other two felony obstruction convictions were enough to make Brown a career criminal under the ACCA.
While Brown was unlucky, the ruling that combined the two cocaine convictions may be of help to individuals looking to appeal their sentences under the ACCA. If two offenses happened very near one another in time, its possible that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would not consider them separate offenses.
The court should consider the intention of the ACCA: to punish criminals who are repeatedly breaking the law. While selling cocaine to two different parties in one day may be illegal, it does not necessarily mean that the individual is on his way to becoming a career criminal. It will be interesting to see how the court handles this question in future appeals cases.