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The Armed Career Criminal Act And Defining “Serious Drug Offense”: Prior State Convictions

Supreme Court of the United States

United States, Petitioner


Gino Rodriquez

128 S. Ct. 1783

Decided May 19, 2008


 Whether a defendant should be sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (i.e. receive an enhanced 15 year sentence) where he was previously convicted under State law three times and the State law statute contained a recidivist provision whereby a defendant receives a 5 year sentence for the first conviction for delivery of a controlled substance and the statute sets a 10 year ceiling for a second or subsequent offfense and the qualification for a sentence under ACCA is three previous convictions for a “serious drug offense” and “serious drug offense” is defined as a conviction with a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more.

Held that: the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by law for the state drug convictions at issue was the 10 year maximum set by the state receivdivst provision.  This reading is compelled by the application of §924(e)(2)(A)(ii) where the offense was the crimed charged in each of the drug delivery cases; the relevant law is the state statutes prescribing 5 and 10 year prison terms and the maximum term prescribed for at least two of the state drug offenses was 10 years.

Respondent, Gino Rodriquez was convicted in 2004 by the United States District Court for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 USC § 922(g)(1).

Rodriquez had two prior California state convictions for residential burglary and three state convictions in Washington for delivery of a controlled substance- in violation of Wash. Rev. Code §§ 69.50.40.
The three drug convictions occurred on the same day but were in respect of offenses which had taken place on three separate dates. At the time of the offenses, the Washington statute which the respondent was convicted of violating stated under provision §§69.50.401) that upon conviction a defendant could be “imprisoned for not more than five years”.
However provision §69.50.408 stated “any person convicted of a second or subsequent offense” could “be imprisoned for a term up-to twice the term otherwise authorized. Under this second provision the respondent faced a maximum
term of imprisonment of 10 years for each of the drug delivery charges.
The state court sentenced Rodriquez to concurrent sentences of 48months imprisonment on each count.

Legal Analysis:
”Serious drug offense” is defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act as including:  “an offense under State law, involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to distribute, a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 USC 802) for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.” § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii).

The interpretation by the Government of the statute, must be driven by the language contained therein. The key statutory terms which apply for present purposes are:
– “Offense” – In each of the drug delivery cases this was a violation of §§69.50.401(a)
– “Law” – Set out within §§69.50.401 which gives a maximum term of 5 years for first offenses, and §69.50.408 which specifies a maximum term of 10 years for second and subsequent offenses.

Therefore, meeting this definition, the maximum term prescribed by Washington law for at least two of the respondent’s drug offenses was 10 years, although he was given lower sentences of 48months for each count.

Therefore the previous holding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal that the maximum applicable term of imprisonment was 5 years was in contradiction to the plain definition within the ACCA.

The court clarified that in the matter of sentences prescribed under recidivist statutes, or when a sentencing judge increases a sentence based on the defendant’s criminal history; the severity of the sentence relates to the most recent conviction. The sentence is increased not because of prior convictions, but because the latest crime is then considered an aggravated offense as the perpetrator’s criminal behaviour has been shown to be repetitive.

Therefore, as the ACCA is a recidivist statute, Congress must have had such provisions in mind and understood that state recidivist provisions would in some cases increase the maximum penalty prescribed by state law.

It also stands that the top sentence within the sentencing guidelines is not really the “maximum term.. prescribed by law” for the “offense” because guidelines allow a sentencing judge to exceed these guidelines under appropriate circumstances.
The concept of “Maximum term of imprisonment” was used in many statutes which predated the ACCA. In all of those statutes the concept referred to the maximum term prescribed by the relevant criminal statute rather than the top of the sentencing guidelines range.

The Court held that the “maximum term of imprisonment.. prescribed by law” for the state drug convictions at issue in this case was the 10 year maximum set by the applicable recidivist provision.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings in line with the above.