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U.S. v. WYNN, NO. 14-4599

Decided: May 20, 2015  

The Fourth Circuit held that a defendant’s prior drug convictions increased the extent to which a defendant’s marijuana offenses during supervised release were punishable under 21 U.S.C. § 844(a).  

This appeal stemmed from the district court determining, based on the defendant’s status as a recidivist drug offender, that certain drug offenses committed during defendant’s supervised release were Grade B violations under the United States Sentencing Commission’s advisory policy statements for violations of probation and supervised release. Anthony Wynn was convicted in 2003 of conspiracy to distribute and possession with the intent to distribute heroine and cocaine base, a violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1). Wynn was sentenced to a term of imprisonment, followed by a five-year period of supervised release. As a condition of his supervised release, Wynn was required to refrain from the unlawful use of controlled substances and was required to submit to drug testing. After a petition from Wynn’s parole officer alleging numerous violations, Wynn admitted in front of the district court during a supervised release revocation hearing to possessing marijuana on the several alleged occasions.

Therefore, Wynn had his supervised release revoked. The probation officer calculated Wynn’s new term of imprisonment using the advisory policy statements. His calculation was based on his conclusion that, due to Wynn’s prior drug convictions, his marijuana offenses constituted Grade B violations because each offense was punishable by imprisonment of more than one year under an enhancement for recidivism. Wynn argued that the instances of possessing marijuana were Grade C violations because the penalty under federal law does not exceed a one-year term of imprisonment, and the district court was prohibited from the policy statements from considering his prior convictions. Wynn states that these prior convictions were only relevant in determining his term of imprisonment at his original sentencing hearing.   

Here, the Fourth Circuit had to determine whether the district court correctly determined that Wynn’s conduct of possessing marijuana constituted a Grade B violation under the policy statements. Wynn cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder arguing that the district court was prohibited from finding that the drug offenses that he committed during supervised release were punishable under an enhanced statutory penalty. Specifically, Wynn argued that the government was in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 851(a)(1) by not filing notice signifying the intent to rely on Wynn’s prior convictions at his revocation sentencing.

Despite Wynn’s argument, the Fourth Circuit determined that nothing in the decision in Carachuri-Rosendo suggested that § 851 prevents a district court from considering a defendant’s prior convictions during a supervised release revocation hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to determine the gravity of the breach of trust committed by the defendant. Additionally, by the plain terms of the statute, § 851 applies only to the sentencing of criminal defendants who have been convicted of a crime following the “entry of a plea of guilty” or a “trial.”

Further, Wynn argued that the district court could only consider the “basic” penalty imposed for simple possession of marijuana, rather than the penalty for these acts committed by a recidivist defendant. To support his argument, Wynn relied on Application Note 1 to U.S.S.G. § 7B1.1. However, his argument failed to support his position. Instead of limiting a district court’s ability to consider the conduct of a defendant, Application Note 1 states that district courts should consider all conduct that affects the maximum penalties for a supervised release violation. Accordingly, the district court was correct in determining that Wynn’s instances of possessing marijuana during his supervised release equated to Grade B violations under the Guidelines’ Chapter 7 advisory policy statements.

Full Opinion

Austin T. Reed