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Sunday, April 21, 2024 | Back issues
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High Court Rules On Sentence Enhancement

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two rulings that addressed the application of felony sentence enhancement to certain drug and DUI convictions.

In Begay v. U.S., a 6-3 majority ruled that convictions for drunk driving do not count as "violent felonies" triggering enhanced sentencing.

Petitioner Larry Begay pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm and received an enhanced 15-year prison sentence based on his 12 prior convictions for drunk driving in New Mexico. State law makes driving under the influence a felony on the fourth offense.

The justices held that a DUI is not a violent felony as defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The second ruling, Burgess v. U.S., concluded that a state drug offense punishable by more than one year in prison qualifies as a felony drug offense, even if state law classifies it as a misdemeanor.

Petitioner Keith Lavon Burgess pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess at least 50 grams of cocaine with the intent to distribute, a crime that carries a minimum 10-year sentence.

Prosecutors sought to double his sentence under the Controlled Substances Act, which adds another 10 years if the defendant has a prior felony drug conviction.

Burgess had been convicted in South Carolina of possessing cocaine and received a one-year sentence. He claimed that because his prior conviction was not a felony under state law, it could not be counted as a felony under federal drug enhancement guidelines.

The justices, in rejecting this argument, stressed that the term "felony" means an offense punishable by more than one year in prison. Moreover, Congress specifically left out the word "felony" in its definition of the phrase "felony drug offense" in the CSA, indicating that Congress intending the phrase to cover any offense punishable by more than one year in prison, regardless of whether the state called it a felony.

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