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U.S. v. VALDOVINOS, NO. 13-4768

Decided: July 25, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the Appellant’s sentence enhancement based on the district court’s finding that he illegally reentered the country after his prior conviction for felony drug trafficking in North Carolina (NC).

In May 2013, the Appellant illegally reentered the United States, and was arrested a few weeks later for resisting a public officer. The district court increased the Appellant’s sentence due to his prior 2008 NC conviction for felony drug trafficking, a charge punishable by more than one year in prison. The Appellant argued that his prior conviction was not punishable by more than a year because he was sentenced according to a plea agreement that capped his prison sentence at twelve months. Thus, the Appellant stated that his prior conviction was not a felony for the purpose of the sentence enhancing guidelines. However, the district court rejected the Appellant’s argument, and found that this plea agreement did not change the fact that the original offense was punishable by imprisonment for over a year because the maximum statutory penalty was sixteen months. The Appellant filed a timely appeal.

The Fourth Circuit stated that in determining the maximum sentence an offender may receive for a prior conviction, a judge must examine three pieces of evidence: the offense class, the offender’s prior record level, and the aggravated sentencing range’s applicability. U.S. v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237, 247 n.9 (4th Cir. 2011). In the Appellant’s case, the NC Structured Sentencing Act (NCSSA) authorized a maximum sentence of sixteen months in prison due to his prior conviction. The Court found it irrelevant that the Appellant’s sentence pursuant to his plea deal was only recommended to range from ten to twelve months. Further, the Fourth Circuit stated that prior NC conviction qualified as a federal sentencing predicate because it was punishable by imprisonment over one year based on the Appellant’s prior offense class, record level, and sentencing range. The Court also found no precedent to support the Appellant’s argument that the plea deal negotiations that he participated in displaced the NCSSA and established the maximum punishment for any offender sentenced pursuant to a plea negotiation deal. The Court stated that the Appellant should have tried to plead guilty to a lesser crime if he wanted to avoid a conviction punishable under NC law by imprisonment greater than a year, but the reality was that the Appellant did plead guilty to an offense punishable under NC law by a maximum imprisonment of sixteen months in prison. Thus, the Appellant could not now claim that the district court unfairly enhanced his sentence based on a predicate offense. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, and held that NC’s legislatively mandated sentencing structure determined whether the Appellant’s prior NC conviction was punishable by more than one year in prison, not the sentence recommended in the Appellant’s plea deal.

Full Opinion

Alysja S. Garansi