(CN) – When determining whether a criminal’s prior convictions should bear on new sentence, a judge should not consider how those earlier crimes would be sentenced under revised guidelines in the present day, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Clifton Terelle McNeill was a repeat offender when police in Fayetteville, N.C., arrested him with about three grams of crack cocaine packaged for distribution and a .38-caliber revolver.
McNeill pleaded guilty to drug and weapon charges in August 2008, and the judge chose to apply a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
This law provides for 15-year minimum sentences when a person has “three previous convictions … for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.”
Though McNeill conceded that two of his prior convictions – assault with a deadly weapon and robbery – constituted “violent felonies,” he claimed that recent revisions to North Carolina law downgraded the seriousness of his six state drug-trafficking convictions.
At the time of his conviction on those charges in the early 1990s, the crimes carried maximum 10-year prison terms, which McNeill served. But North Carolina reduced the maximum sentence in 1994, so cocaine distribution carried maximum 38-month sentences and cocaine possession carried maximum 30-month sentences.
Rejecting McNeill’s argument, the District Court imposed a 25-year sentence for his latest crime. The 4th Circuit affirmed, finding that North Carolina’s revised sentencing scheme does not apply to crimes committed before Oct. 1, 1994.
The Supreme Court also affirmed Monday, though for a different reason.
“The only way to answer this backward-looking question is to consult the law that applied at the time of that conviction,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the unanimous court.
Though McNeill pointed to the present-tense structure of the act’s definition of “serious drug offense,” the justices said he has overlooked “the fact that ACCA is concerned with convictions that have already occurred.”
“Despite Congress’ use of present tense in that definition, when determining whether a defendant was convicted of a ‘violent felony,’ we have turned to the version of state law that the defendant was actually convicted of violating,” according to the nine-page ruling.
Reading the law with McNeill’s frame could lead to “absurd results,” Thomas wrote, noting that a prior conviction could disappear entirely if a state later opted to reformulate the offense.
“It cannot be correct that subsequent changes in state law can erase an earlier conviction for ACCA purposes,” Thomas wrote. “A defendant’s history of criminal activity – and the culpability and dangerousness that such history demonstrates – does not cease to exist when a State reformulates its criminal statutes in a way that prevents precise translation of the old conviction into the new statutes.”
Congressional intent supports this as well since “a prior violent felony conviction remains a ‘conviction’ unless it has been ‘expunged, or set aside or [the] person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored,'” according to the ruling.