United States v. Rodriquez (06-1646)

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (September 25, 2007)

MANDATORY SENTENCING, ARMED CAREER CRIMINAL ACT, RECIDIVISM, PREDICATE OFFENSE, ENHANCED SENTENCE

The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), applies to felons convicted of firearms possession who have previously been convicted of three or more serious crimes, including state drug offenses with a maximum sentence of ten or more years. A federal district court sentenced Gino Rodriquez to 92 months' imprisonment after a jury found him guilty of possessing a firearm as a felon. The Government appealed, arguing the court should have applied the ACCA, which requires a minimum fifteen-year sentence. The ACCA does not tell federal judges how to determine what the maximum possible sentence for an underlying crime was under state law. The Government argues that when a crime is committed by a repeat offender, or "recidivist," at the time of their prior conviction, the court should include in the maximum any sentence enhancements imposed based on the offender's recidivism. Rodriquez argues the maximum sentence should be only the statutory maximum for the crime charged, excluding such enhancements. The sentence in question here is a 1995 drug conviction Rodriquez received under Washington State law. The Government said the conviction qualified as an ACCA predicate because in 1995 Rodriquez was a repeat offender and Washington law provided a ten-year peak sentence for such offenders. The district court ruled that Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court precedents required it to consider only the sentence for the underlying crime without additional penalties for recidivism. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. In this case, the United States Supreme Court will clarify how federal courts should treat recidivist sentence enhancements when determining the maximum sentence for a state drug conviction for ACCA purposes. This decision will add to the Court's rapidly developing interpretation of the ACCA.

Question(s) presented

The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. 924(e) (2000 & Supp. IV 2004), provides for an enhanced sentence for felons convicted of possession of a firearm, if the defendant has three prior convictions for, inter alia, a state-law controlled substance offense "for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law." 18 U.S. C. 924(e)(2)(A)(i). The question presented is: Whether a state drug-trafficking offense, for which state law authorized a ten-year sentence because the defendant was a recidivist, qualifies as a predicate offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. 924(e) (2000 & Supp. IV 2004).

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Issue(s)

The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA) provides for an increased sentence, with a mandatory minimum of fifteen years, for felons convicted of firearm possession if the offender has three prior convictions for specified types of crimes. These crimes include state drug offenses punishable by a maximum prison term of ten years or more. This case considers whether a state drug offense still qualifies as an ACCA predicate offense if it is punishable by a maximum ten-year sentence only because of sentence increases based on the offender's status as a repeat offender.

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Facts

The following information is from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit's opinion in United States v. Rodriquez and the Joint Appendix, Petition for Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, 2007 WL 3286637 (U.S.):

In April 2003, a Spokane County sheriff's deputy arrested 41-year-old Gino Gonzaga Rodriquez outside the apartment Rodriquez shared with Tammi Putnam and her two children. Washington law enforcement had been looking for Rodriquez since 1998, when he absconded from parole after serving several years in prison for a 1995 drug conviction. There were four warrants out for his arrest. A search of Rodriquez himself yielded a bag of heroin and $900 in cash. A later search of the apartment, conducted with Putnam's consent, produced a .40 caliber handgun. A friend of Putnam's teenaged son had given Rodriquez the gun to dispose of it, but Rodriquez had not done so. A jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington later convicted Rodriquez of one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The court sentenced him to 92 months in prison, with an additional three years of supervised release.

Both the United States and Rodriquez appealed. Rodriquez contested the conviction. He first challenged admission of the gun as evidence, claiming Putnam's consent to the search was not voluntary. He also claimed there was insufficient evidence to connect him to the gun. The Government contested the sentence. It argued that the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA) applied to Rodriquez's case and that the court should have given Rodriquez the mandatory fifteen-year minimum sentence that law provided. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Rodriquez's conviction, but agreed with Rodriquez that the ACCA did not apply.

The ACCA imposes higher sentences for felons charged with possession of firearms if they have three qualifying prior, or "predicate," offenses. Predicate offenses under the ACCA are violent felonies, including burglary and arson, and serious drug offenses, including offenses "under state law, involving manufacturing distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance...for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law." 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii).

Rodriquez had two burglary convictions, from 1980 and 1982, which both courts found qualified as predicate offenses under the ACCA. But the courts found that a third possible predicate offense, Rodriquez's 1995 drug convictions under Section 69.50.401 of the Revised Code of Washington (1994), did not qualify.

In 1995, Rodriquez had pled guilty to three separate incidents of delivering Schedule III, IV, and V controlled substances. Rodriquez had received 48 months on each conviction, to be served concurrently. This was close to the maximum sentence Washington law provided for first-time offenders convicted of the offense (i.e., five years). But, according to the Government, Rodriquez could have been sentenced as a repeat offender for his 1995 convictions. Section 69.50 408 of the Revised Code of Washington (1994) provided a ten-year sentence for repeat offenders convicted of Rodriquez's crimes.

The Government believed that the district court in the current case should have used the higher repeat-offender sentence for the 1995 convictions in determining whether the ACCA applied to Rodriquez. Use of the higher, repeat-offender sentence would satisfy ACCA standards for predicate offenses, bringing Rodriquez's predicate total to the magic number three. Rodriquez contended that the correct sentence for ACCA purposes was the baseline first-offender maximum (five years). The district court and the Ninth Circuit both found that, based on the Ninth Circuit's opinion in United States v. Corona-Sanchez, 291 F.3d 1201 (9th Cir. 2002), and the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), the court must look to the statutory sentence for the crime itself in determining whether the ACCA applies, without considering any sentence increases imposed because the defendant was a repeat offender.

The United States petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari on this sentencing issue.

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Discussion

The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e), increases federal prison sentences for felons convicted of firearm possession from a maximum of ten years, where the ACCA doesn't apply, to a mandatory minimum of fifteen years, where it does. To impose the ACCA, a federal court must first find that the offender has three prior qualifying convictions for serious offenses. Such qualifying convictions include state drug convictions that carry a maximum punishment of ten or more years' imprisonment.

This case asks how maximum sentences for prior state drug convictions should be calculated, for ACCA purposes, for defendants who were already repeat offenders at the time of the prior conviction. The Government's brief argues that the maximum for repeat offenders should include any sentence increase the offender was subject to because he or she was a habitual criminal, or "recidivist." Rodriquez's brief counters that only the sentence for the underlying crime (i.e., the first-time-offender sentence, excluding recidivism add-ons) should be considered.

This question is important because most states' laws mandate significantly higher sentences for recidivists than for first-time offenders convicted of the same crime. Therefore, if federal courts applying the ACCA include recidivism enhancements when calculating the maximum sentence available for a prior offense, many convictions that would otherwise not qualify as ACCA predicates would reach that threshold. Rodriquez's 1995 drug convictions are such cases.

The Supreme Court's immediate purpose in reviewing this case is to answer a narrow question of statutory interpretation: In drafting the ACCA, what did Congress intend federal courts to consider when they determined whether a state drug offense was a qualifying serious offense for ACCA purposes? The Court's opinion in this case, and its decision on a separate question presented in Begay v. United States, which will be argued the same day, will clarify two elements in the Court's rapidly emerging interpretation of the ACCA. These opinions will join two other recent decisions, Logan v. United States (heard earlier this term) and James v. United States (heard last term), which also considered the ACCA.

This case also touches on broader social concerns. For the United States Department of Justice and its community partners in the anti-gun-violence group Project Safe Neighborhoods, the primary goal of the ACCA is to protect society from chronic law-breakers. The magnitude of this problem is suggested by a 2002 Department of Justice report recording the prior and subsequent arrest records of a group of 272,111 inmates released in 1994. According to the report, within three years of release, 67.5% of this group had reoffended. At the start of the study, the inmates had averaged six prior arrests and three prior convictions each, not including the sentence they'd just served. The group went on to commit an average of four new crimes each over the next three years. A smaller cohort of high-rate offenders logged 45 or more offenses apiece. In total, the larger group had committed 4.9 million lifetime crimes by the end of the study. From this perspective, shielding convicted felons from the sentencing power of the ACCA would deprive law enforcement of the very tool Congress created to deal with such career offenders.

The Government's description of Rodriquez's own criminal history underscores these concerns. In addition to Rodriquez's two burglaries and three 1995 drug convictions, the Government's brief cites convictions for grand theft, possession of fraudulent checks, assault with a deadly weapon, assault, and being under the influence of controlled substances.

A conflicting view of the ACCA-predicate question is that leveraging state recidivism enhancements, first, to convert a minor state drug conviction into a serious, ACCA-qualifying offense, and then to mandate a fifteen-year-minimum ACCA sentence, would lead to disproportionately high sentences and unfairness to individual defendants. This view reflects concerns that members of the legal community (including the American Bar Association, The Sentencing Project, and Justice Anthony Kennedy) have raised about mandatory sentencing schemes such as state three-strikes laws. These laws can require lengthy sentences for relatively minor crimes based on the defendant's prior criminal history. The Court has found state three-strikes laws to be constitutional. See, e.g., Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003) But the ACCA review process proposed by the Government would apply even in instances where state recidivism enhancements were discretionary and the state court elected not to apply them. Under the Government's reading of the ACCA, federal courts making ACCA determinations would ignore such state decisions and bring the full weight of the possible sentence to bear later for ACCA purposes.

Rodriquez also contends that determining possible recidivism enhancements for a conviction handed down years or decades before would be fraught with complications for a federal court. The existence of mandatory sentencing guidelines and state rules on what can constitute a prior offense are only two of the possible complicating factors. These complexities raise legitimate fears about inaccuracy, inefficiency, and federal intrusion into state court decision-making.

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Analysis

Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a person convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) is subject to a term of imprisonment of not less than fifteen years if that person has three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). The main question in this case is how to determine whether a prior drug offense qualifies as serious for the purpose of applying the ACCA's mandatory enhanced sentence. The ACCA defines a serious drug offense as "an offense under State law ... for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law." See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii). Rodriquez argues that a prior crime should count as a serious drug offense only if the statute defining the offense prescribes a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more. The United States takes the position that it is appropriate for the courts to consider any sentence enhancements available due to the defendant's status as a repeat offender, or recidivist.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that recidivist sentence enhancements could not be considered in determining whether a prior drug conviction qualified as a predicate offense under the ACCA. See United States v. Rodriquez, 464 F.3d 1072, 1082. The court of appeals held that the decision in United States v. Corona-Sanchez, 291 F.3d 1201 (9th Cir. 2002), was binding precedent and applied in the context of the ACCA. See id. at 1081. Corona-Sanchez held that the court must consider sentence enhancements as separate from the underlying offense and look only to the sentence available for the crime itself when determining whether it qualifies as a predicate offense. See id. at 1080. Rodriquez agrees with this position, stating that "the plain language and clear policy of the ACCA" support the decision to consider only the maximum term of imprisonment described by the statute defining the offense without taking into account any sentence enhancements that may have been available due to the defendant's status as a repeat offender. See Brief for Respondent at 7.

According to Rodriquez, a court determining whether an offense is serious for ACCA purposes should look only to the crime as statutorily defined, without regard to the defendant's particular characteristics. See id. at 11. Rodriquez contends that although a defendant who is a repeat offender might be deserving of harsher punishment, the seriousness of the offense is not determined by the criminal history of the defendant. See id. The Government argues that a defendant's prior crimes may be considered more serious because the defendant was a repeat offender, and that since the ACCA was designed to impose enhanced sentences on certain recidivist offenders, it is logical that the relevant maximum term of imprisonment for ACCA purposes should be the enhanced sentence prescribed by law for repeat offenders. See Brief for Petitioner at 17. This interpretation also recognizes that an enhanced sentence reflects the state's judgment that certain crimes are more serious when committed by repeat offenders. Id.

Recidivism is a sentencing factor taken into consideration by Washington State statutes, which establish different maximum terms of imprisonment for first-time and repeat offenders who have committed the same offense. See id. at 16. The United States interprets these statutes as establishing two alternative maximum terms of imprisonment for the same underlying offense depending on whether the defendant is a first-time or a repeat offender. Id. Under this view, when the defendant is a recidivist, the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by law for ACCA purposes should be the term prescribed by the statute establishing an enhanced sentence for repeat offenders. Id. The Government argues that the text of the ACCA does not support the assumption that only one maximum term of imprisonment can be considered for any given offense. Id. The Government points out that § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii) does not define a serious drug offense as an offense under State law for which the maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law, but for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law. See id. at 16-17. This language allows for the possibility that the relevant statute may establish alternative maximum terms of imprisonment depending on whether the defendant is a first-time or a repeat offender. Id. at 17. Enhanced sentences for recidivist offenders are a common feature of the criminal justice system. The Government therefore believes Congress would likely have intended to take these enhanced sentences into account when determining whether a defendant's prior convictions qualified as predicate offenses under the ACCA. Id. In contrast, the Government concludes, it is unlikely that Congress would have intended to ignore state judgments that certain offenses become more serious when committed by repeat offenders. Id.

Rodriquez asserts that the Government's approach to interpreting the ACCA cannot be squared with the text of the statute as it is written. See Brief for Respondent at 14. The ACCA is triggered when a defendant has been convicted of a particular offense carrying a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more, not when the criminal history of a particular defendant permits a term of imprisonment of ten years or more. Id. Rodriquez also cites a number of Supreme Court decisions mandating a categorical approach to determining whether a violent offense qualifies as a predicate offense under the ACCA. See id. at 12. According to this approach, courts identify predicate offenses based on uniform categorical definitions derived from the elements of the offense itself, not collateral matters unrelated to the definition of the crime. See id. For example, application of the categorical approach in the context of violent offenses means considering whether the elements of the offense justify its inclusion under the ACCA without regard to the specific conduct of a particular offender. See id. at 13. Rodriquez argues that Congress did not intend for a particular crime to sometimes qualify as a predicate offense and sometimes not, depending on the facts of each case. See id. The Government's approach would require such case-by-case determination, Rodriquez argues, because it would base the decision of whether a crime was a predicate offense on the recidivist status of the individual who committed the crime. Id.

The Government is concerned that if only one maximum term of imprisonment can be considered under the ACCA, a court will have to choose between the higher sentence available for repeat offenders and the lower sentence for first-time offenders. See Brief for Petitioner at 20. The Government contends that choosing only one term of imprisonment would lead to incongruous results. See id. at 21. For instance, considering only the sentence available for first-time offenders might result in a particular crime's maximum sentence being shorter than that actually served by the defendant. Id. On the other hand, considering only the enhanced recidivist sentence would be unjust to first-time offenders. See id.

Rather than viewing sentence enhancements as a separate punishment for recidivism, the Government argues, they are more appropriately understood as a "stiffened penalty" for the underlying offense. See id. at 22. The maximum term of imprisonment defining the offense thus should be the maximum term of imprisonment that the offender, recidivist or not, could have received, or at least the maximum term of imprisonment the offender actually did receive. Id.

The Government states that the categorical approach provides no support for Rodriquez or the court of appeals' interpretation of the ACCA. See id. at 23. This approach requires separating the statutory definition of the prior offense from the particular facts underlying the defendant's conviction for that offense. Id. In Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), the Court applied the categorical approach to determine whether a prior violent felony was of the type Congress intended to include under the ACCA. Id. According to the Government, how one defines the maximum term of imprisonment for an offense for ACCA purposes is an altogether different question, for which the categorical approach is inappropriate. See id. at 24. Even if the categorical approach applied, the court could look to judicial records to determine whether the defendant was subject to an enhanced sentence. See id. at 25.

Rodriquez contends that the Government's approach, which involves determining the term of imprisonment that a defendant actually faced or could have received, would require the federal ACCA court to resolve complex issues of state law and disputed fact. See Brief for Respondent at 23. In situations where a defendant has been convicted of more than one offense in a single trial, the court may have to determine whether a conviction is sufficiently prior to qualify as a predicate offense. See id. at 25. Rules governing enhanced sentences vary from state to state and from crime to crime. See id. at 34. In some cases enhancements apply automatically while in others it is left to the discretion of the judge or the prosecution. See id. Allowing the federal ACCA court to determine that an enhanced sentence was available in a case where the state court chose not to enforce it would undermine the state court's autonomy by overruling its decision about how to treat the case. See id. at 37. Rodriquez also argues that if sentence enhancements are to be considered, then guidelines for sentence caps should be given equal weight. See id. at 39. According to Rodriquez, the fact that the Government does not take these guidelines into account indicates that its approach lacks grounding in law or principle. See id. at 44.

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Conclusion

The United States Supreme Court's decision in this case will determine whether the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 and the increased sentence it imposes apply to Rodriquez's conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. In addition, the Court's opinion will guide lower federal courts in determining when a prior state drug conviction meets the term of imprisonment required to qualify as a predicate offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984. Specifically, it will instruct courts on whether their calculation of a state's maximum sentence can or must include any sentence increases an offender could have received for the prior offense because he or she was a repeat offender. A decision to include recidivism enhancements in the maximum sentence may allow ACCA courts to review lower court documents to determine whether such enhancements were available, even if the state court chose not to apply them. On the other hand, excluding such enhancements from the maximum sentence for ACCA purposes will prevent a federal court from taking a defendant's criminal history into account. Under this narrower view, a conviction would be treated the same way under the ACCA regardless of how many prior convictions a defendant had received. This will be the first Court opinion directly addressing the ACCA's definition of a serious drug offense, but the Court's opinion in this case will augment a number of recent decisions clarifying how courts should apply the ACCA.

Authors

Prepared by: Valerie Robart and Ellen Loeb

Edited by: Molly Curren Rowles

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