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U.S. v. SELLERS, No. 14-4568  

Decided: November 18, 2015

The Fourth Circuit held that, in deciding whether a prior conviction qualifies as a predicate for federal sentence enhancement, the standard is what sentence might have been imposed for the prior crime, not what sentence was actually imposed.  On that basis, the Fourth Circuit upheld the District Court.

In 1999, Sellers pled guilty to three counts of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine in violation of South Carolina statute.  He was sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act (YOA) to an indeterminate period of custody not to exceed six years.  In 2014, a federal jury found Sellers guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm.  The presentence report recommended that Sellers be sentenced as an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) based upon his earlier South Carolina drug offenses.  The ACCA provides for enhanced sentences for defendants with three prior convictions for drug offenses that carry a maximum prison term of ten years or more.  The South Carolina statutes under which Sellers had been previously convicted carried maximum prison terms of 15 years or more.  Sellers objected to the presentence report, arguing that his prior convictions did not qualify as ACCA predicates because his YOA sentence imposed a maximum penalty of six years imprisonment.  Sellers recognized that the Fourth Circuit had rejected this argument in United States v. Williams, but argued that United States v. Simmons abrogated Williams.  The District Court overruled Sellers’s objections, and sentenced him to 210 months imprisonment and five years supervised release.  Sellers appealed to the Fourth Circuit arguing that Simmons overruled Williams, and thus his earlier drug convictions did not qualify for ACCA sentence enhancement, because his YOA sentence was for a maximum of six years imprisonment

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by reviewing Williams and Simmons.  In Williams, a case very similar to the instant case, the defendant argued that his YOA sentence did not qualify for ACCA sentence enhancement because his maximum term of imprisonment under the YOA was six years.  The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, finding that the YOA allowed for a variety of sentencing alternatives, and that eligibility for ACCA sentence enhancement should be decided based on the maximum sentence allowed under the statute of conviction, not based upon the sentence actually imposed.  In Simmons, which concerned predicate sentences for sentencing enhancement under a different federal Act, the defendant had been previously sentenced under North Carolina’s unique Structured Sentencing Act (SSA).  The SSA requires judges to match class of offense and prior history of offender to a statutory table, which gives presumptive, mitigated, and aggravated sentencing ranges.  Barring additional findings/procedures allowing for sentencing in another range, defendants must be sentenced in their presumptive ranges.  The Fourth Circuit found that a prior North Carolina conviction is punishable by imprisonment over one year only if the sentence for that particular defendant could exceed one year.

The Fourth Circuit found Sellers’s argument that Simmons overruled Williams, and thus his ACCA sentence enhancement was incorrect because his YOA sentence was for a maximum of six years, was incorrect.  It held this on the basis of the difference between the discretionary YOA and the mandatory SSA, and because the standard for predicate crimes for federal sentence enhancement has been, and remains, the sentence which could have been imposed, not the sentence actually imposed.

The Fourth Circuit held that the test for whether a crime qualifies as a predicate for federal sentence enhancement is the maximum sentence permitted, not the sentence imposed, and whether the judge could have imposed a qualifying sentence.  Under that standard, Sellers’s prior convictions qualified as predicate crimes for ACCA sentence enhancement, because the judge could have sentenced Sellers to more than ten years of prison for his prior drug convictions.  On this basis, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court.

Full Opinion

Katherine H. Flynn