Justices To Hear Cases On Gun Sentencing For Repeat Felons

By Marco Poggio | May 15, 2023, 9:31 PM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to clarify the legal standards used to determine whether repeat felony offenders convicted of federal gun charges must receive prison sentences of at least 15 years.

In granting review to separate cases involving Justin Rashaad Brown and Eugene Jackson, who were each convicted of felony drug offenses and were later caught with guns, the justices will seek to cure a three-way circuit split as to how a 15-year sentence mandatory minimum is triggered.

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, felons hit with firearms charges are subject to a maximum 10-year sentence. But a defendant who has at least three serious drug offenses or violent felony convictions meets the threshold for the mandatory minimum.

To determine whether the three strikes have occurred, federal courts determine whether the elements of a state drug offense or violent felony are the same as those of its federal counterpart, using a method known as "categorical approach" established by the Supreme Court in its 1990 decision in Taylor v. United States .

According to that method, if the federal definition of a crime covers more conduct than the state definition for the same crime, the federal offense is deemed too broad and cannot be considered as one of the three convictions needed to trigger the mandatory minimum.

But things get complicated when federal or state laws change along the way, creating the possibility of a mismatch between them. When federal and state laws are no longer in lockstep, federal courts applying the categorical approach must decide which version of federal law to consult.

The choice falls within one of three options: Courts can consider the federal law in effect at the time a defendant was convicted in state court; at the time the defendant committed the federal firearm offense; or at the time the defendant is sentenced for the federal gun offense.

"What this case comes down to is: At what point in the timeline do you do that analysis?" Peter A. Bruland of Sidley Austin LLP, who represents Brown, told Law360.

flowchart of the Categorical Approach Prescribed in Taylor v. United States

The three different rules are at the center of the rift between the federal courts of appeals.

In the Fourth Circuit, courts apply the categorical approach, using the version of federal law in effect at the time of sentencing. The Third, Eighth and Tenth circuits look at federal law at the time of the firearm offense. The Eleventh Circuit takes a completely different approach, considering federal law at the time of a state conviction.

Brown was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm after police found cocaine, money and a gun in his apartment. In 2018, hemp was decriminalized federally, but it continued to be illegal in Pennsylvania. After his guilty plea, a federal court counted Brown's prior Pennsylvania drug convictions — one for delivering cocaine and four for possessing marijuana — as predicates under the ACCA and sentenced him to 15 years.

On appeal, Brown challenged the mandatory minimum sentence on the grounds that Pennsylvania punished conduct, in this case hemp possession, the federal government did not. Brown argued the sentencing court should have looked at the version of federal law in effect at the time of federal sentencing, but the Third Circuit disagreed with him. He filed a certiorari petition on Dec. 21.

Jackson was also sentenced to the 15-year minimum in 2021 after he pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. In his case, the Southern District of Florida said it was bound by federal appeals court precedent to consider his two state drug convictions as counting as serious drug offenses, which together with two violent felonies — an armed robbery conviction and one for aggravated assault — met the mandatory minimum prison time under the ACCA.

Jackson argued unsuccessfully that the sentencing court should have looked at federal law in effect at the time of his federal gun offense when it considered ioflupane, a cocaine analogue, legal, while Florida still banned it.

The Eleventh Circuit first reversed Jackson's enhanced sentence, but after the U.S. government filed briefs in opposition, the appellate court decided the correct analysis involved looking at federal law at the time he was convicted in state court. Jackson petitioned the high court on Jan. 24.

In an unusual move, the U.S. solicitor general asked the Supreme Court to provide clarity on which legal analysis should be used, acknowledging the circuit split that has emerged. Perhaps even more notably, the government asked the justices to hear Jackson's case, but not Brown's.

In the end, the high court decided to take both cases.

"We are very pleased with the court's grant," Jeffrey T. Green of Sidley Austin, who also represents Brown, told Law360 in an email.

Brown is represented by Jeffrey T. Green, Peter A. Bruland, Drew Langan and Meredith R. Aska McBride of Sidley Austin LLP.

Jackson is represented by Andrew Lee Adler of the Federal Public Defender's Office for the Southern District of Florida.

The U.S. government is represented by Elizabeth B. Prelogar of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The cases are Justin Rashaad Brown, Petitioner v. United States, case number 22-6389, and Eugene Jackson, Petitioner v. United States, case number 22-6640, both in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.

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