MCNEILL v. UNITED STATES
Clifton Terelle McNeill was sentenced to 300 months imprisonment after he was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm and 240 months imprisonment for unlawful possession with intent to distribute approximately 3.1 grams of crack cocaine.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina determined McNeill to be an armed career criminal and then departed upward from the United States Sentencing Guidelines to sentence McNeill to the maximum sentence applicable. McNeill contends that he is not eligible for sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act because the drug-related convictions upon which the district court relied do not qualify as serious drug offenses under the ACCA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed the district court order.
Can a conviction under state law be treated as a serious drug offense for purposes of a longer sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, if the state law violated did not at the time of federal sentencing set a maximum prison term of at least 10 years, but had done so at the time the crime was committed?
Legal provision: Armed Career Criminal Act
Yes. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court order in a unanimous opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas. "A federal sentencing court must determine whether 'an offense under State law' is a 'serious drug offense' by consulting the 'maximum term of imprisonment' applicable to a defendant's prior state drug offense at the time of the defendant's conviction for that offense," Thomas wrote.
Opinion of the Court
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the
preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to
notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Wash-
ington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order
that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CLIFTON TERELLE MCNEILL, PETITIONER v.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF
APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
[June 6, 2011]
JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a prior state drug-trafficking conviction is for a “serious drug offense” if “a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law” for the offense. 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(A)(ii). The question in this case concerns how a federal court should determine the maximum sentence for a prior state drug offense for ACCA purposes. We hold that the “maximum term of imprisonment” for a defendant’s prior state drug offense is the maximum sentence applicable to his offense when he was convicted of it.
After an extended chase, police officers in Fayetteville, North Carolina apprehended petitioner Clifton Terelle McNeill. McNeill was caught with 3.1 grams of crack cocaine packaged for distribution and a .38-caliber revolver. In August 2008, he pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1), and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, 21 U. S. C. §841(a)(1).
At sentencing, the District Court determined that McNeill qualified for ACCA’s sentencing enhancement. Under ACCA, a person who violates 18 U. S. C. §922(g) and “has three previous convictions . . . for a violent felony or a serious drug offense” is subject to a 15-year minimum prison sentence. §924(e)(1). McNeill conceded that two of his prior convictions—assault with a deadly weapon and robbery—were for “violent felonies.”
McNeill argued, however, that none of his six state drug trafficking convictions were for “serious drug offenses” because those crimes no longer carried a “maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more.” §924(e)(2)(A)(ii). When McNeill committed those crimes between 1991 and 1994, each carried a 10-year maximum sentence, and McNeill in fact received 10-year sentences. See N. C. Gen. Stat. §§14–1.1(a)(8), 90–95(a)(1) and (b)(1) (Michie 1993) (sale of cocaine and possession with intent to sell cocaine). But as of October 1, 1994, North Carolina reduced the maximum sentence for selling cocaine to 38 months and the maximum sentence for possessing cocaine with intent to sell to 30 months. See N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§15A– 1340.17(c) and (d), 90–95(a)(1) and (b)(1) (Lexis 2009).
The District Court rejected McNeill’s request that it look to current state law and instead relied on the 10-year maximum sentence that applied to McNeill’s drug offenses at the time he committed them. No. 5:08–CR–2–D–1 (EDNC, Jan. 26, 2009), App. 118. Finding that McNeill therefore had three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, the court applied ACCA’s sentencing enhancement. The court then departed upward from the advisory Sentencing Guidelines range and sentenced McNeill to 300 months in prison in light of his “long and unrelenting history of serious criminal conduct” and “near certain likelihood of recidivism.” Id., at 119, 121.
The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Although the court consulted the maximum sentence under current state law, it reached the same conclusion as the District Court because North Carolina’s revised sentencing scheme does not apply to crimes committed before October 1, 1994. 598 F. 3d 161, 165 (2010) (agreeing with United States v. Hinojosa, 349 F. 3d 200 (CA5 2003), and disagreeing with United States v. Darden, 539 F. 3d 116 (CA2 2008)). Thus, even if McNeill were convicted today for his 1991, 1992, and September 1994 drug offenses, he would still be subject to the old 10-year statutory maximum. 598 F. 3d, at 165 (citing N. C. Gen. Stat. §15A– 1340.10 and State v. Branch, 134 N. C. App. 637, 639–640, 518 S. E. 2d 213, 215 (1999)). We granted certiorari, 562 U. S. ___ (2011), and now affirm, albeit for a different reason.
As in all statutory construction cases, we begin with “the language itself [and] the specific context in which that language is used.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U. S. 337, 341 (1997). ACCA’s sentencing enhancement applies to individuals who have “three previous convictions . . . for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.” §924(e)(1). As relevant here, the statute defines a “serious drug offense” as “an offense 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.” §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).
The plain text of ACCA requires a federal sentencing court to consult the maximum sentence applicable to a defendant’s previous drug offense at the time of his conviction for that offense. The statute requires the court to determine whether a “previous conviction” was for a serious drug offense. The only way to answer this backwardlooking question is to consult the law that applied at the time of that conviction. We did precisely that in United States v. Rodriquez, 553 U. S. 377 (2008), where we addressed whether the “maximum term of imprisonment” includes recidivism enhancements. In assessing the “maximum term of imprisonment” for Rodriguez’s state drug offenses, we consulted the version of state law “that [he] was convicted of violating,” that is, the 1994 statutes and penalties that applied to his offenses at the time of his state convictions. Id., at 380–381.
Use of the present tense in the definition of “serious drug offense” does not suggest otherwise. McNeill argues that the present-tense verb in the phrase “is prescribed by law” requires federal courts to determine the maximum sentence for a potential predicate offense by looking to the state law in effect at the time of the federal sentencing, as if the state offense were committed on the day of federal sentencing. That argument overlooks the fact that ACCA is concerned with convictions that have already occurred. Whether the prior conviction was for an offense “involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance” can only be answered by reference to the law under which the defendant was convicted. Likewise, the maximum sentence that “is prescribed by law” for that offense must also be determined according to the law applicable at that time.
McNeill’s interpretation contorts the plain meaning of the statute. Although North Carolina courts actually sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his drug offenses, McNeill now contends that the “maximum term of imprisonment” for those offenses is 30 or 38 months. We find it “hard to accept the proposition that a defendant may lawfully [have] be[en] sentenced to a term of imprisonment that exceeds the ‘maximum term of imprisonment . . . prescribed by law.’ ” Id., at 383. B
The “broader context of the statute as a whole,” specifically the adjacent definition of “violent felony,” confirms this interpretation. Robinson, supra, at 341. ACCA defines “violent felony” in part as a crime that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another” or “is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” §924(e)(2)(B) (emphasis added).
Despite Congress’ use of present tense in that definition, when determining whether a defendant was convicted of a “violent felony,” we have turned to the version of state law that the defendant was actually convicted of violating. In Taylor v. United States, 495 U. S. 575 (1990), the Court held that whether Taylor’s 1963 and 1971 convictions were for a crime that “is burglary” depended on the “former Missouri statutes defining second-degree burglary” that “were the bases for Taylor’s prior convictions.” Id., at 602; see id., at 578, n. 1 (noting a subsequent change in state law, but relying on the burglary statutes in force “[i]n those years” in which Taylor was convicted). Similarly, in James v. United States, 550 U. S. 192 (2007), this Court looked to the versions of Florida’s burglary and criminal attempt statutes that were in effect “at the time of James’ [1993 state] conviction.” Id., at 197; see ibid. (quoting the 1993 versions of the Florida statutes). The present-tense verbs in the definition of “violent felony” did not persuade us to look anywhere other than the law under which the defendants were actually convicted to determine the elements of their offenses.
Having repeatedly looked to the historical statute of conviction in the context of violent felonies, we see no reason to interpret “serious drug offenses” in the adjacent section of the same statute any differently. In both definitions, Congress used the present tense to refer to past convictions. Cf. Nijhawan v. Holder, 557 U. S. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 8) (“Where, as here, Congress uses similar statutory language . . . in two adjoining provisions, it normally intends similar interpretations”).
This natural reading of ACCA also avoids the absurd results that would follow from consulting current state law to define a previous offense. See United States v. Wilson, 503 U. S. 329, 334 (1992) (“[A]bsurd results are to be avoided”).
For example, McNeill concedes that under his approach, a prior conviction could “disappear” entirely for ACCA purposes if a State reformulated the offense between the defendant’s state conviction and federal sentencing. Tr. of Oral Arg. 12–13. The Sixth Circuit confronted a similar scenario in Mallett v. United States, 334 F. 3d 491 (2003), where Ohio had substantially changed how drug quantities were measured since Mallett’s state drug conviction. Id., at 502 (addressing this issue in the context of the career offender provision of the Sentencing Guidelines). The Sixth Circuit could not “determine how Mallett would now be sentenced under Ohio’s revised drug laws” because the offense for which he had been convicted “no longer exist[ed] and no conversion between the former and amended statutes [wa]s facially apparent.” Ibid. The court therefore was compelled to look to state law “as of the time of the state-court conviction” to determine the maximum possible sentence for Mallet’s prior offense. Id., at 503.
It cannot be correct that subsequent changes in state law can erase an earlier conviction for ACCA purposes. A defendant’s history of criminal activity—and the culpability and dangerousness that such history demonstrates— does not cease to exist when a State reformulates its criminal statutes in a way that prevents precise translation of the old conviction into the new statutes. Congress based ACCA’s sentencing enhancement on prior convictions and could not have expected courts to treat those convictions as if they had simply disappeared. To the contrary, Congress has expressly directed that a prior violent felony conviction remains a “conviction” unless it has been “expunged, or set aside or [the] person has been pardoned or has had civil rights restored.” 18 U. S. C. §921(a)(20); see also Custis v. United States, 511 U. S. 485, 491 (1994) (explaining that §921(a)(20) “creates a clear negative implication that courts may count a conviction that has not been set aside”).
In addition, McNeill’s interpretation would make ACCA’s applicability depend on the timing of the federal sentencing proceeding. McNeill cannot explain why two defendants who violated §922(g) on the same day and who had identical criminal histories—down to the dates on which they committed and were sentenced for their prior offenses—should receive dramatically different federal sentences solely because one’s §922(g) sentencing happened to occur after the state legislature amended the punishment for one of the shared prior offenses. In contrast, the interpretation we adopt permits a defendant to know even before he violates §922(g) whether ACCA would apply.
Applying our holding to this case, we conclude that the District Court properly applied ACCA’s sentencing enhancement to McNeill. In light of his two admitted violent felony convictions, McNeill needed only one conviction for a “serious drug offense” to trigger ACCA, but we note that all six of his prior drug convictions qualify.
In November 1992, McNeill pleaded guilty and was sentenced in a North Carolina court for five offenses: selling cocaine on four separate occasions in October 1991 and possessing cocaine with intent to sell on one occasion in February 1992. At the time of McNeill’s November 1992 conviction and sentencing, North Carolina law dictated that the maximum sentence for selling cocaine in 1991 and the maximum sentence for possessing cocaine with intent to sell in 1992 was 10 years in prison. See N. C. Gen. Stat. §§14–1.1(a)(8), 90–95(a)(1) and (b)(1) (Michie 1991). McNeill’s 1992 convictions were therefore for “serious drug offenses” within the meaning of ACCA.
McNeill’s sixth drug offense was possessing cocaine with intent to sell in September 1994. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in a North Carolina court in April 1995. By April 1995, North Carolina had changed the sentence applicable to that type of drug offense but still provided that the maximum sentence for possessing cocaine with intent to sell in September 1994 was 10 years in prison. See 1993 N. C. Sess. Laws, ch. 538, §2 (repealing N. C. Gen Stat. §14–1.1); 1993 N. C. Sess. Laws, ch. 538, §56 (as modified by Extra Session 1994 N. C. Sess. Laws, ch. 24, §14(b)) (“This act becomes effective October 1, 1994, and applies only to offenses occurring on or after that date. Prosecutions for, or sentences based on, offenses occurring before the effective date of this act [are controlled by] the statutes that would be applicable to those prosecutions or sentences but for the provisions of this act”). Therefore, McNeill’s 1995 conviction was also for a “serious drug offense.”
* * *
We conclude that a federal sentencing court must determine whether “an offense under State law” is a “serious drug offense” by consulting the “maximum term of imprisonment” applicable to a defendant’s previous drug offense at the time of the defendant’s state conviction for that offense.* §924(e)(2)(A)(ii). The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is affirmed. It is so ordered.
* As the Government notes, this case does not concern a situation in which a State subsequently lowers the maximum penalty applicable to an offense and makes that reduction available to defendants previously convicted and sentenced for that offense. Brief for United States 18, n. 5; cf. 18 U. S. C. §3582(c)(2). We do not address whether or under what circumstances a federal court could consider the effect of that state action.
ORAL ARGUMENT OF STEPHEN C. GORDON ON BEHALF OF THE PETITIONER
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: We will hear argument next this morning in Case 10-5258, McNeill v. United States.
Mr. Gordon: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
When this Court construes a statute, the words of the statute matter, the purpose of the statute matters, and the results produced by that construction matter.
When Congress defined in the Armed Career Criminal Act a 10 years or more is prescribed by law, it meant for Federal courts to look to the law presently in effect in that State.
This is the most natural reading of the statute, and words matter.
It is also consistent with ACCA's purpose, which is punish the Federal firearms offense, and if we are going to punish--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Counsel, I -- I have just one problem, which is under your theory, I understand it, if a State increases a penalty, makes what would have been a penalty for a misdemeanor now a felony, then that defendant is a career criminal, by your logic.
Mr. Gordon: --Uh--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: So the person who thought that at the time they committed the crime they were committing a low-level crime is now a felon; is that your theory of the case?
Mr. Gordon: --If -- if a State were to increase a penalty -- say from originally it was 5 years, increased it to 10 years, the defendant was convicted at a time when it was 5 years -- if the legislature increased the penalty, if the defendant possessed a firearm, yes, he would be facing--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: What -- what -- what logic do you think there is in that, why Congress would want to punish someone now for -- for criminal activity that they thought was lesser, and the State thought was lesser, at an earlier time, less reprehensible?
Mr. Gordon: --Because the purpose of the Armed Career Criminal Act is not to enhance a sentence because of the prior conviction.
It is because the Federal firearm offense at the time it was committed is more serious based on -- based on its repetitive nature, as this Court has said.
So therefore looking to, when the defendant commits the offense, what his status is at that time under the law we think makes sense and is consonant with the purpose of what ACCA is trying to do.
ACCA is not trying to punish the State offense at the time.
And of course the converse, Your Honor, is that by adopting the government's reading, is individuals who at a time committed an offense when a State at that time viewed an offense as more serious but now has changed its view of the offense, does not view it as being as serious, that person also would receive a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Mr. Gordon, the State does regard it -- it does -- prescribe 10 years for this defendant because it's made a -- made the change not retroactive.
So a maximum of 10 years is prescribed for Mr. McNeill, and all others who committed the offense prior to the change in law.
So it is -- it is the State's current position that for this defendant the maximum is 10 years.
Mr. Gordon: Yes, Justice Ginsburg, that's correct.
Where we fundamentally disagree with the government and with the Fourth Circuit is on the significance of retroactivity.
We -- the statute requires -- or the statute directs us to look at the penalty that is prescribed for the offense, the offense in its generic context.
It -- it is not about what the circumstances of the defendant were that produced the particular conviction for him.
No one who commits the trafficking offenses that Mr. McNeill committed today is going to be facing a 10-year sentence.
It's not going to happen to anyone who commits the offense from today forward.
And we think that is where the statute directs us to look: What is the penalty for the generic offense?
Justice Samuel Alito: Suppose -- what would happen in this situation?
A defendant is convicted under a State statute that says that anybody who sells between 1 ounces -- 1 ounce and 5 ounces of a particular controlled substance is guilty of a felony and may be punished by imprisonment for a certain amount of time.
And then the State repeals that provision altogether and enacts a new provision that says anybody who sells between 1 ounces -- 1 ounce and 8 ounces is punishable by a certain penalty.
And now the question comes up what -- what penalty does the court look at with respect to the earlier offense that no longer exists for which the defendant was convicted?
Mr. Gordon: There -- there are two possible answers, Justice Alito.
First, the court could look to what the offense is now, could look back to what the defendant did consistent with Shepard and so forth, and see if the defendant's conviction contains the element of the -- the elements that apply to the present offense.
If the court could not do that, then the conviction would count for purposes of the defendant's criminal history.
It would not count as an ACCA predicate, and the district court would then be limited to a 10-year sentence as opposed to a 15-to-life sentence.
So consistent with -- with its purpose, we think that the statute should be read as speaking to the time, not of the State conviction -- not of the State sentence.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Mis--
Mr. Gordon: Yes?
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: --Mr. Gordon, is this -- is this essentially an academic question?
Because this district judge said that he would impose the same sentence as a variant even if he couldn't do it under the guidelines, even if it were an incorrect calculation.
He said: This criminal record is violent and astonishing; essentially, I'm going to throw the book at him, and I'm going to do it through a variant if that's no -- if there's no other way.
So isn't that -- I mean, isn't this an -- an exercise, essentially an academic exercise, if -- if your -- your client would end up in the same place?
Mr. Gordon: Well, Justice Ginsburg, it may be an academic exercise for Mr. McNeill or for the Mr. McNeills of the world.
The judge would -- if this Court were to agree with us, the judge could impose consecutive sentences on a remand and still achieve the same sentence, yes.
For someone whose only offense, however, is a 922(g) conviction, then it makes a huge difference because, rather than looking at a 15-year mandatory minimum penalty, the defendant would be looking at no more than 10 years.
So, the judge's -- it would be significantly cabined in -- in that sense.
And the other, with respect to the Mr. McNeills of the world, the judge on a remand is still going to be required to calculate the guidelines correctly.
And so if the guidelines change, if they go down in this case, for the judge to achieve a 300-month sentence, the judge is going to have to state reasons again and arguably more significant reasons to -- to achieve that same level if he's working from a lower guideline range.
Justice Elena Kagan: Mr. Gordon, there are other provisions in ACCA which seem to use the present tense in circumstances where it doesn't seem as though the statute truly means the present tense.
So, a violent felony is one that
"has as an element the use of physical force, is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives. "
and so on and so forth.
But we would not look as to -- in interpreting that provision to the present day, would we?
Mr. Gordon: Justice Kagan, I think you would, in this sense: For the violent felony provision, there is a generic offense.
Let's take burglary.
There is this existing thing right now called burglary.
What a Taylor analysis does is it looks backward to what the defendant did.
It looks to see what those elements are.
It takes those elements and brings it forward, and if those elements fit in the box, then what he did is a burglary.
If it does not, then it is not a burglary.
The -- so, that's my essential answer to that.
Justice Antonin Scalia: Why is -- why is -- why is the present tense inadequate for the -- for the government's position in this case?
Once it is conceded that the North Carolina law is not retroactive, the law reducing the number of years, it is the case that what is the maximum term of imprisonment for the offense that he committed -- how many years ago was it, whatever--
Mr. Gordon: --Early '90s, Your Honor.
Yes, '91, '92.
Justice Antonin Scalia: --What is the maximum punishment for that offense which occurred at that time is the longer period.
Why is -- I don't see why your argument requires us to ask what would be the term if he had committed the offense at a later date.
The maximum term for his offense when he committed it is those years because the State did not retroactively reduce his sentence.
Mr. Gordon: That's correct for Mr. McNeill.
The penalty for him -- he would be facing an exposure of 10 years.
The penalty, however, that everyone else -- the penalty that is currently prescribed in North Carolina for someone who commits McNeill's offenses is not 10 years and, and depending on where they fall in the prior record level, their maximum sentence is considerably less than 10 years.
So we do not think it's consonant with the statute to look to the circumstances of the individual defendant.
Congress easily could have said
"for which a penalty of 10 years or more is prescribed for the defendant. "
We think that would be a different case.
Justice Antonin Scalia: It's not just for the defendant; it's for anybody who committed it prior to the -- prior to the amendment of the statute.
Mr. Gordon: That's correct.
Justice Antonin Scalia: Anybody that committed it then, the -- the -- it is an offense
"involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled. "
"for which a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more is prescribed by law. "
It is prescribed by law for any of those offenses that occurred between whenever that old statute was enacted and whenever this statute was enacted.
Mr. Gordon: It is prescribed only if you take the offense out of the category of a generic offense.
It is not -- it is -- it is not prescribed for the generic offense.
It is prescribed for particular defendants who committed the offense at a certain point in time.
And, Justice Scalia, I think it raises a rather fundamental question, which is if we're going -- if we really are punishing the Federal firearm offense and we are not punishing the defendant for the prior conviction, and we have two individuals who commit a 922(g) offense and they have similar records, but they sustain their State convictions on different days, do we want to treat them the same for purposes of where they -- of the Federal offense or do we want to distinguish them on the basis of the State convictions?
Do we want the State convictions to really--
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: What if the State--
Mr. Gordon: --Yes, sir.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: --What if the State change is to abolish the offense altogether?
Do we -- do we not have any predicate offense for the defendant who committed the crime prior to the abolition of the State offense?
Mr. Gordon: Your Honor, yes.
If -- if, as I said earlier, you could not determine from the prior conviction whether there is any present State offense that might be called something different, but that has those drug trafficking elements that the statute requires, if you cannot determine, you know, from Shepard-approved documents and so forth, yes, we think for purposes of the armed career criminal enhancement only that that would disappear.
I do want to stress, because I think it's important to stress, that--
Justice Antonin Scalia: Excuse me.
Mr. Gordon: --Yes?
Justice Antonin Scalia: --That's correct?
You're happy with that?
The person committed a felony when it was a felony, and the State later no longer makes it a felony, and it isn't counted for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act?
Mr. Gordon: Only for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act, yes.
It certainly would count as a prior conviction.
It would count as a prior conviction, for example, for 922(g) purposes.
This person could still be prosecuted for being a felon in possession, yes.
So, we do not -- our reading is not opening the jail house door for anybody.
They are still facing a hefty 10-year sentence.
The question is, in a statute that defers to the judgment of the States to determine seriousness, are we going to defer to the current State assessment of what seriousness is or are we going to look back to repeal the discarded judgments?
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: Well, but it strikes me that there's really no change in the State view of how serious it is.
It was just an overall change in how they're going to look at sentencing.
Under the prior regime, you're sentenced to a particular term, but in fact you serve a lot less.
With the new treatment in sentencing, you're sentenced to what is a much -- a smaller term, but you in fact are going to serve the whole thing.
At the end of the day, there's no real change in how they view the seriousness of the offense.
Mr. Gordon: That's correct, Mr. Chief Justice, arguably yes.
But for purposes of the serious drug offense definition, what we have to use is the penalty.
We have to look at the penalty as the State -- as the State's proxy, if you will, for seriousness.
Justice Antonin Scalia: Are we looking at it because we want the States to determine the Federal sentence or are we looking at it because we evaluate the evil of the particular defendant on the basis of how -- how much of a crime he was willing to commit?
And so long as it was a serious felony when he committed it, this is a bad actor.
I don't care if the State changes its view.
At the time, he was willing to commit a felony that put him in jail for 10 years, and that's what we're looking to, it seems to me, how bad an apple is this fellow that -- that we're talking about putting away?
And that doesn't change simply because the State decides in the future that that same act will not be a felony.
Well, people who perform that act in the future aren't so bad; they're just -- you know, just normal not-so-good people--
--but they're not the kind of a person who's willing to -- to commit a felony that, you know, puts them away for 10 years.
It seems to me that that's what the Federal law is looking to.
We're not giving over to the States the decision of -- of how long we should incarcerate somebody in a Federal prison.
Mr. Gordon: Justice Scalia, if -- if that were indeed what Congress wanted, then it would have written the statute differently.
There would be something in that definition about the defendant, and there's not.
It's about the offense.
So the -- the judgment that the State is making is about the seriousness of the offense itself, and as we made an effort to argue in our briefs, State views of drug offenses change.
Justice Antonin Scalia: I agree, it does refer to the seriousness of the offense.
But it refers to the seriousness of the offense at the time the offense was committed in order to determine how bad a fellow this is, not -- not because we want the States to determine how long we're going to keep Federal prisoners in prison.
Mr. Gordon: Justice Scalia, respectfully, I -- I don't agree with that.
Justice Antonin Scalia: That's the issue, though, really.
Mr. Gordon: --That is an issue, yes, Justice Scalia.
But the issue is, do you look at the defendant.
Do you say Congress was really talking about trying to get the Mr. McNeills any way we can or we are -- we are interested in people who commit an offense that the State currently regards as serious.
You will capture Mr. McNeills; you will also capture people who, you know, under the old Texas law that, you know, prescribed 99 years for someone who might have sold one or two marijuana cigarettes as well.
Justice Antonin Scalia: But you'll -- you'll put away for a long time somebody who really wasn't that bad a guy.
He committed a misdemeanor, and when the State later makes it a felony, you -- he suddenly comes under ACCA.
And I -- I can't believe that that's -- that's what -- what Congress had in mind just because the State now thinks that it's more serious.
Who cares what the State thinks?
We -- we want to know how bad an actor this particular defendant is.
Mr. Gordon: In the case of a misdemeanor -- Justice Sotomayor asked earlier about misdemeanors and felonies -- there may be some additional constitutional issues in terms of whether if it's a misdemeanor conviction, even statutory reasons, if it's a misdemeanor conviction, whether it should count.
I think it works that way in the violent felony prong, for example, where the term that you look at is was it 1 year.
But that is -- that is not the proxy for seriousness because there is another provision, 18 U.S.C. section 921(a)(20), that exempts 2-year misdemeanors.
So -- so, the 1 year in the violent felony provision is not serving the same purpose that -- that the 10 years is in the serious drug offense.
A reason that Congress may have had for doing that is to say that if we are going to hit somebody with 15 years, we want to make sure that they had their constitutional rights at the time they sustained the predicate conviction, had a right to counsel, indictment, jury, and so forth.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I'm -- I'm not sure what you're urging now.
Are -- are you modifying or retracting the answer you gave to Justice Sotomayor, that is, the case where the maximum was 5 years, but then at the time of the Federal offense the State has changed it so it's 10 years?
I -- I think you answered her question that it would work the same way, that what mattered is how the State currently ranks the offense, not the offender.
But now you seem to be saying there might be a different answer when the State increases rather than decreases the penalty.
Mr. Gordon: What -- what I meant to say, Justice Ginsburg, is that if you are -- if you continue to be talking about a felony offense, if it goes from 5 years to 10 years, it went from a felony to another felony, in that circumstance I -- I -- I will concede our reading of the statute would work to the detriment of that defendant, that -- that's correct.
What I was simply trying to say about the misdemeanor-felony is that there might be some additional constitutional issues that would not be present in -- if it went from 5 years to 10 years.
Justice Anthony Kennedy: In -- in the hypothetical where the penalty is increased, would there be an ex post facto problem?
Mr. Gordon: Your Honor, I don't believe there would be.
The defendant presumptively is on notice that the law has changed.
Now, if -- if the increase in the penalty were between the time that he commits the 922(g) offense and the time of the sentencing, yes, I think you have ex post facto concerns there.
I think if you're talking about between the time of the State offense and the time of the commission of the firearm offense, I don't think it raises the ex post facto concerns.
Again, the defendant is on notice, he's presumed to know what the law is at the time he commits the Federal offense, and that's what we care about here.
I -- I would also like to return to the question of retroactivity for just a moment and note that in terms of the administerability of the Armed Career Criminal Act, the question of retroactivity would introduce, if the government's reading is adopted, problems that do not exist under reading ACCA speaking in the present tense.
Under the government's approach, it is not simply that you can look at what the sentence was that the defendant received in State court.
The government says retroactivity matters.
So you would still have to go to the present penalty, and then you would have to conduct an inquiry into what the, you know, what changes occurred in the law, were any of them retroactive, were they retroactive for a certain period of time, et cetera.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: I'm sorry, how do you see that?
I thought the government had two alternative positions, the first being that you look at the time -- at the time of the offense, at the conviction or, alternatively, it was arguing the way to take the position of the court below.
But if you're going to use the present tense then you look retroactively to see -- then you look to see whether the State would retroactively apply the new sentence.
Mr. Gordon: --Yes, Your Honor.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: You understood their brief differently?
Mr. Gordon: Your Honor, I read the brief differently?
If -- and if my reading is incorrect, I apologize.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: I'm sure they'll tell you.
Mr. Gordon: Yes, I'm sure they will.
If there are no further questions, I would like to reserve the balance of my time.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: Thank you, Mr. Gordon.
ORAL ARGUMENT OF CURTIS E. GANNON ON BEHALF OF THE RESPONDENT
Mr. Gannon: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
Petitioner was convicted under North Carolina law of multiple offenses subject to a 10-year maximum term of imprisonment, and he actually received 10-year sentences for his drug crimes.
He now claims that those convictions are not ones for which the maximum term of imprisonment is at least 10 years for purposes of ACCA's definition of serious drug offense.
That result is incorrect, because the sentencing court should consider the offense and the punishment as they were defined by the body of law under which the defendant was convicted and sentenced.
This is the simplest approach, because the Court is already looking to the statute at the time of the underlying conviction in order to evaluate whether it satisfies the substantive component of the definition of a serious drug offense.
And if I can start where Justice Sotomayor finished with my friend, we have one footnote in the first part of our argument, footnote 5, which clarifies an issue that isn't at stake here, which is that when we say that you need to look to the time of the underlying conviction, that that includes the time of the sentencing which could include some sentence modification proceedings.
If the State had amended the law in the meantime, made it retroactively applicable and the defendant were able to get his judgment or conviction modified, then we would not insist that -- that he still had an offense that was subject to a 10-year maximum term of imprisonment.
And we think that this approach is consistent with what the Court said in Rodriguez, where it was also evaluating the serious drug offense under ACCA and pointed us to the documents associated with the judgment of conviction.
It recognizes that the relevant question here is the body of law that applied to this particular defendant in his offense.
And -- and it's the term "conviction" that actually points us to that in the statute.
The question is what is the sentencing regime associated with the defendant's actual conviction, and the government's--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Could I -- just to clarify your point.
If there's been a modification of law that would have entitled him to a retroactive change in his sentence, although I'm not quite sure how that works, because if there's a modification, I thought it would only apply to a defendant who had committed the crime at that earlier time but was convicted at the present time.
This defendant wouldn't have his sentence modified.
Mr. Gannon: --Well, I think that this would be a highly extraordinary circumstance.
There may be an instance where the State legislature has actually amended the law, made it retroactive and said that it's applicable to people who had final convictions beforehand I--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Well, that's my question.
Is your footnote related to that kind of individual only or are you saying -- or are you accepting your adversary's argument that the circuit below got it right?
You look at the is as to what the sentence would be today--
Mr. Gannon: --The footnote--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: --if this person had committed the crime?
Mr. Gannon: --The footnote in part A of the government's brief is -- is not consistent with the court of appeals approach.
We're saying that under our principal reading which is at the relevant time, at the time of the conviction, that that includes the sentencing associated with that conviction; and in certain unusual circumstances that may well include a sentence modification proceeding that occurred sometime after the fact.
But in any event it's going to be a previous conviction that needs to be on the books at the time of the 922(g) offense.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: I'm just trying to clarify whether you mean that the -- the modification had to have occurred, meaning that he was convicted, he got 10 years, and somewhere for some State reason, that actual final judgment was amended to include 5.
Mr. Gannon: Yes.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Are or are you talking about--
Mr. Gannon: Yes.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: --accepting his argument that if he could apply for a change now--
Mr. Gannon: It -- in -- we think that it has to be under the documents associated with his judgment of conviction.
So it would matter that he had been successfully able to obtain modification of the -- the judgment associated with his conviction.
In those circumstances it would be appropriate to say that the body of law that applied to his conviction was one that specified only the lower punishment.
That's obviously not an issue here because the State hasn't made any of these relevant changes retroactively applicable to any offense that was committed before the first of October in 1994.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: --Is this the first time you're advancing the argument, the first part of your argument?
Mr. Gannon: It--
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: It doesn't appear as you did -- if you did it below; am I correct?
Mr. Gannon: --We -- we did not advance this below.
We weren't heard on the question at district court.
The district judge adopted this argument in response to Petitioner's objection to the PSR which had taken this position.
In the court of appeals, Petitioner relied upon the Sixth Circuit's decision in Morton, and we -- we responded the essentially the way the Fourth Circuit did, which is to say the Fifth Circuit has distinguished instances like that when the court has not -- when the State has not made the -- the intervening decrease in the sentence retroactively applicable.
That's the interpretation that the Fourth Circuit adopted.
But the government has made this argument before in -- in the Second Circuit in Darden, in the Fifth Circuit in Hinojosa, in the -- in the Sixth Circuit in Morton in the 1994 decision.
The government has made this lead argument that we're making today in addition to the fallback argument that the -- that the Fourth Circuit adopted here, and that the Fifth Circuit adopted in -- in Hinojosa.
But I would note that the lead argument that we're making today has several advantages that make it preferable to the fallback argument.
Some of them have already been brought up today.
I already mentioned the fact that this is simpler, because it requires the judge to just look to one time to evaluate the substantive component of the definition and the -- the sentence component of the definition.
But this also prevents the types of problems that Justice Alito addressed earlier that may arise when the State has amended the definition of the offense.
If you just look to the -- the actual offense at the time of the conviction, then you don't run into those sorts of problems, and the Fifth Circuit recognized this in its Allen decision and therefore ended up having to adopt what is essentially the government's lead argument here.
The Sixth Circuit which generally follows Petitioner's rule also ended up adopting the government's lead argument in the context of a guidelines determination, because it recognized that it -- it was unwilling to assume that a conviction simply disappears when the State has modified the definitions in such a way that you can't precisely translate into current terms what the underlying offense of conviction is.
The government's reading avoids that problem because it doesn't require you to recharacterize the old offense at all.
It just says what was he convicted of?
What was the maximum sentence associated with that offense at the time he was actually prosecuted?
There's nothing hypothetical about it.
And as the -- as the Court pointed out in Rodriguez, we would expect a lot of the documents association with a judgment of conviction to make this a relatively easy inquiry to answer what was the maximum sentence at the relevant time.
This -- the reading also avoids the difficulty that Justice Sotomayor pointed out that -- that is associated with later increases in -- in the sentence.
Under the government's view, if you committed an offense at a time when it was subject to a 10-year punishment, Congress has reasonably assumed that you are a dangerous person; but that Congress could also reasonably assume that there's a distinction between somebody who commits an offense at a time when it's subject to a 10-year term of imprisonment and someone else who commits that offense at a different time when it's subject to only a 30-month term of imprisonment.
And so under North Carolina law, for instance, the -- the felony of manufacture of methamphetamine went from being a class H felony which is subject to a 30-year maximum term of imprisonment to being a class C felony -- excuse me, a 30-month maximum term of imprisonment, to a class C felony, which is subject to a 19-year maximum term of imprisonment on December 1st, 2004.
And we think it's reasonable for Congress to assume that somebody who committed the crime of manufacturing methamphetamine in North Carolina at a time when it was subject to a 30-month maximum sentence is not as dangerous as somebody who was willing to commit the same offense at a time when it was subject to a 19-year maximum term of imprisonment.
And the government's approach by -- by requiring the court to look to the time of the underlying conviction and sentencing unifies the inquiry across both components of the definition of serious drug offense and the definition of violent felony that Justice Kagan alluded to in the earlier part of the argument, that the definition of violent felony includes present-tense references to whether a crime is burglary, the question of whether it is punishable by a -- by a term exceeding 12 months, which is necessary to establish that it's a felony is one that -- that we believe needs to be made at the time of the underlying conviction.
Justice Samuel Alito: What if the legislature decreases the penalty because it really has taken a different -- a new look at the nature of the offense and has come to the conclusion that this really is not nearly as serious as we -- as we previously thought?
So why should the prior judgment about the severity of the offense be taken into account under ACCA?
Mr. Gannon: Well, Congress has given us a very objective and simple yardstick to look to and that's just what the maximum term of imprisonment is.
And if -- if the State actually thinks that the previous offenses that were committed were less serious, then it could make the decreased maximum term of imprisonment retroactively applicable if -- if it wanted to demonstrate that -- that it really thought that those were mistakes.
But that's not the approach that South Carolina has taken -- that North Carolina has taken here.
It has said that for crimes that were committed before October 1st, 1994, the prior sentencing regime still applies.
And as the Chief Justice pointed out before, the State has not repudiated the judgment that these were serious offenses, not -- not -- not only with respect to when they were committed, but the entire shift to structured sentencing Petitioner acknowledges--
Justice Samuel Alito: But what if--
Mr. Gannon: --wasn't intended--
Justice Samuel Alito: --What if they had repudiated their prior normative judgment?
And -- and even -- what if they even had made it -- made the new sentence retroactive, but a particular defendant was no longer in prison, so wasn't on parole, so there was nothing -- there was no way that this could have any effect on that person?
Mr. Gannon: --Well, it's possible that the State could -- could provide a mechanism by which he could have the documents associated with his prior judgment amended to reflect the fact that he -- he ought not to have been subjected to the -- to the greater term of imprisonment.
I think that that's probably the hardest case, somebody who once upon a time actually, like this Petitioner, did a 10-year term of imprisonment for -- for the sentence, the State in retrospect concludes that the offense had not been that serious even at the time, and if he had been prosecuted today he -- he should have received only a 5-year maximum term of imprisonment.
I think -- I think that that's -- that's an instance where it -- it might be difficult to -- to -- to find a way in the statute to say that ACCA doesn't apply to him, that he did not have a previous conviction at the relevant point in time.
Justice Antonin Scalia: I'm not sure it's so hard.
I -- I could find my way clear to saying that if it has been retroactively made a -- a -- a lesser offense, that that would qualify under -- under the statute.
I don't know why you insist that his actual conviction be -- be altered.
Mr. Gannon: Well, I -- I think that we would obviously still prevail under an approach like that.
It would be an expansion of what we proposed in footnote 5.
We think that the relevant inquiry starts with the conviction, but if -- if the court were to ask in the context of the body of law that applies to his offensive conviction, whether the State has changed its mind by doing -- by altering the precise yardstick that Congress has directed the court to look to, then -- then I think that -- that that would be an appropriate way to deal with it.
I'm not exactly sure how you get it out of the words of the statute, but it -- it would solve the problem for -- for cases like this of somebody who had been unable to take advantage of a sentence modification type of proceeding.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Can you tell us whether changes in State sentences -- do the States routinely address retroactivity?
Or do they leave it to their general common law?
Or do you have any idea of what--
Mr. Gannon: Several States have specific saving statutes like the Federal Government does in 1 U.S.C. 109.
At least three States have constitutional provisions that effectively are something like a saving statute.
Sometimes they have background common law principles.
In any instance, these types of general provisions, except where the constitutional provisions exist, could be overcome by the State legislature in a particular statute, just as is the case with the Federal savings statute.
A State legislature, if it wants to be express about the retroactive applicability of a change, would be able to do that.
There may be limitations under the ex post facto clause of its increasing the severity of punishment, but for something like a decrease, there -- there would be fewer limitations.
If there are no further questions, we would urge the Court to affirm the judgment of the--
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: Thank you, Mr. Gannon.
Mr. Gordon, you have 6 minutes remaining.
REBUTTAL ARGUMENT OF STEPHEN C. GORDON ON BEHALF OF THE PETITIONER
Mr. Gordon: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.
First, the government talks about, again, the problems arising if -- if a statute is amended, and so forth.
Again, I would like to analogize that to the violent felony prong of ACCA.
Predicate convictions disappear.
Things that were predicate convictions cease to be when this Court interprets a particular offense as not qualifying as a violent felony, then -- then individuals who had committed that offense it disappears as -- as a predicate.
So it is -- it is not anomalous for that to happen.
The government speaks about looking to the time of the State proceeding.
It is -- that -- that -- that approach overlooks that changes to drug laws very well could reflect a normative judgment on the basis of the -- of the legislature, and the question is whether -- whether in the way it wrote the statute, Congress wanted -- wanted to defer to those State judgments.
Texas and New York changed their sentencing laws because they judged them to have been too harsh, that -- that they treated as more serious offenses than -- than those offenses actually were.
We see that today with the issue of -- of crack cocaine.
And under the government's reading, individuals may be hit with -- with an ACCA mandatory minimum on the basis of crack convictions sustained at a time when, you know, the view of crack is very, very different from what it is now.
So we think that is an important consideration as well.
The question of retroactivity, again, as we have argued in our brief, it does not -- the savings clause in North Carolina was a general savings clause, it applied to every single offense in the -- in the State.
It was not a reflection of the -- of the legislature's judgment of seriousness.
And if I -- if I may end on a point that I made earlier, the question for this Court really is when do you want to treat two individuals -- when do you -- when do you want to look at them?
Do you want to look at them at the time of the Federal offense or do you want to look at them in terms of their prior State convictions and come to a conclusion that although they did exactly the same thing in the State court, one committed a serious drug offense, one did not.
We think that is an absurd result.
It's not a fair result, and we would ask the Court to reverse the judgment of the Fourth Circuit.
Thank you very much.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts: Thank you, counsel.
The case is submitted.
Justice Clarence Thomas: This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to United States Court of the Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, known as ACCA, a felon who unlawfully possesses a firearm is subject to a 15-year minimum prison sentence if he has -- has three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.
As relevant here, the statute defines a serious drug offense as a state drug trafficking offense for which "a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more is prescribed by law".
The question in this case is how a federal sentencing court should determine what maximum sentence is prescribed by law for a defendant's previous state drug offense.
Petitioner Clifton McNeill pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
The District Court determined that ACCA applied based in part on McNeill's six prior state drug trafficking convictions.
McNeill argued that his prior convictions were not for serious drug offenses because, although those offenses each carried a 10-year maximum sentence.
When he was convicted of them, the State had since reduced the maximum penalty for those offenses.
The District Court rejected McNeill's argument and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals to determine the maximum term of imprisonment for prior state offense for ACCA purposes.
A federal sentencing court must consult the law that applied to the defendant's offense at the time of his state conviction for that offense.
The plain text of the statute allows no other interpretation.
The opinion of the Court is unanimous.