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Articles Posted in Federal Criminal Cases

In a recent case coming out of a court that oversees the Commonwealth of Virginia, the defendant appealed his 219-month sentence based on drug convictions. On appeal, the defendant argued that a law passed in 2010 reduced the maximum sentence he could face for a conviction related to cocaine possession. The court looked at the law in question and ultimately disagreed with the defendant, denying his appeal.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the defendant was convicted approximately ten years ago of participating in a 2009 drug conspiracy. In 2012, a trial court concluded that the defendant had dealt with powder and crack cocaine in the conspiracy, and he was sentenced to 219 months in prison as a result.

Two years prior to the conviction, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses nationwide. After its enactment, the government had to decide whether or not the Act applied to defendants who had been convicted before 2010 – that is, did defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses qualify for lower sentences even if those convictions occurred prior to Congress’s passing of the Act? Congress decided in 2018 that yes, the Act would apply to pre-Act offenders who had not yet been sentenced when the Act became effective.

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In a recent opinion coming from a federal court in the southeast, the defendant’s attempt to challenge the length of his sentence was denied. The defendant had been found guilty of distribution of fentanyl, and he argued on appeal that his resulting sentence was unreasonably long. The court disagreed, keeping his original sentence in place.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the defendant was accused of selling drugs to a man who eventually overdosed. The man, who was found unconscious on his bathroom floor, had heroin and fentanyl in his system at the time of his death. Investigators soon learned of the chain of events that led to the man’s death: the defendant in this case had texted the man a few days earlier, bragging that he was in possession of a drug called “China White,” which is a narcotic containing fentanyl. When the defendant told the man about the China White, he bragged that it was very strong and that people were “going out” on the drug.

The man bought drugs from the defendant twice over a period of two days. The second time, the man asked the defendant for only half a gram of the drug, but the defendant encouraged him to purchase a whole gram. After taking the drug, the man overdosed and died immediately. His roommate found him on the floor when she came home from work later in the day.

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Federal courts do not have the jurisdiction to try any alleged crime committed in the United States. For a United States District Court to entertain criminal charges against a defendant, there must be a valid statutory or constitutional basis for the federal court to exercise jurisdiction over the charge. Because of these restrictions on federal jurisdiction, laws have been creatively passed by the U.S. Congress to expand federal jurisdiction over alleged criminal conduct. 28 U.S.C. §§ 2341–2353, colloquially known as the Hobbs Act, is one such statute.

The Hobbs Act allows federal courts to take jurisdiction over crimes of robbery or extortion that disrupt interstate commerce, as the federal government has control over interstate commerce under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. A federal appellate court recently heard a defendant’s appeal of several Hobbes act convictions.

In the recently decided case, the defendant was charged in federal court with three crimes related to an alleged robbery under the Hobbs act. Based on his guilty pleas, the defendant was ultimately convicted and sentenced for three crimes: conspiracy to commit a Hobbs Act robbery (Count 1), commission of a Hobbs act robbery (Count 2), and discharge of a firearm while committing a Hobbs Act robbery (Count 3). Under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, the defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison for Count 3, which would serve consecutively with a 46-57 month sentence that was imposed for Counts 1 and 2.

In December 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act into law with the goal of improving criminal justice outcomes, reducing the size of the prison population, and building mechanisms that would also make sure to maintain public safety. The Act represents the culmination of years of bi-partisan pressure for criminal justice reform. In practice, the Act allows certain inmates to be released from prison earlier than anticipated, depending on the nature of their offense and the Act’s published Sentencing Guidelines.

One result of the First Step Act is that it makes it easier for criminal defendants convicted of possession of crack cocaine to serve shorter sentences. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which had major implications for defendants charged with possession of cocaine – that is, while it used to be the case that people faced much longer sentences for possessing crack cocaine than for possessing the same amount of powder cocaine, today, the difference in the sentences is much smaller.

Once it is determined that a defendant’s offense is one that is covered by the First Step Act, a court is free to recalculate the defendant’s sentence. The First Step Act and the Fair Sentencing Act can allow a court to significantly reduce the amount of time a defendant must stay incarcerated.

Federal and State criminal statutes commonly include offenses that are enhanced based on their relation to other criminal conduct. Many of these enhanced offenses are made more serious by a defendant’s use of a firearm while committing or attempting to commit another offense. One federal statute, commonly known as the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), is used to make other criminal acts more serious if they are committed with a firearm. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which includes Virginia, recently decided an appeal by a defendant who was charged with a felony under the ACCA.

The defendant from the recently decided appeal was arrested after a home invasion robbery. According to the facts outlined in the judicial opinion, the armed defendant and others had broken into the home of a suspected drug dealer with the intention of stealing money and a large quantity of cocaine. The defendants did not find any drugs at the apartment, however, they did steal money and a firearm. In addition to being charged with robbery and attempted drug trafficking, the defendant was charged with another felony under the ACCA, for brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence and a drug trafficking offense. The defendant pleaded guilty to the robbery and the ACCA offense and the drug trafficking charge was dropped.

After the defendant was sentenced for his crimes, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that the definition for a “crime of violence” under the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague and reversed a conviction. As a result of the new precedent, the defendant appealed his conviction for the ACCA charge, arguing that there was no valid predicate offense to allow for the ACCA to be applied. On appeal the Fourth Circuit rejected the defendant’s arguments, finding that in his plea colloquy, the defendant admitted to brandishing a firearm while in the commission of a drug trafficking offense and that such an admission was sufficient to uphold his conviction under the ACCA.

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