Week 38 (2019)

Week of September 23, 2019 through September 27, 2019
Highlight Case

United States v. Smith

Decided: September 27, 2019 

The Fourth Circuit held that, under North Carolina law, a plea of guilty followed by conditional discharge is not a “conviction” in the context of the federal felon-in-possession statute. The Court ruled that the appellant’s conditional discharge was not a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) and thus he could not have violated § 922(g)’s prohibition on possessing a firearm after being “convicted” of a felony. Therefore, the Court reversed appellant’s federal conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. 

In 2016, Appellant Tyrius Eugene Smith pled guilty to Larceny by Employee, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-74, in violation of North Carolina state law, and the judge imposed a “conditional discharge.” A conditional discharge meant that “without entering a judgement of guilt,” the court “defer[ed] further proceedings and place[d] the person on probation . . . for the purpose of allowing the defendant to demonstrate the defendant’s good conduct.” Id. at § 15A-1341(a4). While serving his conditional-discharge probation, appellant was caught with pistols. Before the state court resolved this violation, appellant was indicted by a federal grand jury for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Appellant was found guilty in a bench trial. In appealing this federal conviction, appellant argued that his federal conviction was invalid because he had no prior convictions prohibiting his possession of the firearms. The Government argued that appellant’s 2016 conditional-discharge plea constitutes a conviction under North Carolina’s sentencing scheme statute and sentencing cases. 

In reversing the district court’s conviction, the Court concluded that the North Carolina Supreme Court would hold that a conditional-discharge plea is not a conviction for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 921 and 922. The Court reasoned that since appellant’s larceny proceedings were held in North Carolina, North Carolina law determines whether something counts as a conviction. The Court first looked to North Carolina’s own felon-in-possession statute, which defined “conviction” as requiring a final judgement, and reasoned that because appellant’s conditional-discharge plea was done “without entering a judgement of guilt,” it does not lead to a final judgement and, therefore, there was no conviction. 

The Court also stated that the Government’s use of North Carolina’s sentencing scheme statute and sentencing cases were unavailing because this issue is not within the sentencing context. Similarly, the Government’s argument that a conditional discharge is analogous to a prayer for judgement continued failed because the Court concluded that the North Carolina Supreme Court would not apply the holding in Friend v. North Carolina, 609 S.E.2d 473 (N.C. Ct. App. 2005) to a conditional discharge. 

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the North Carolina Supreme Court would not treat appellant’s conditional discharge from 2016 as a conviction in the context of the federal felon-in-possession statute, and therefore reversed appellant’s federal conviction.

Full Opinion

Kate Heil