Judgement: Supreme Court (USA) Brown v. UNITED STATES



No. 22–6389, 47 F. 4th 147, and No. 22–6640, 55 F. 4th 846, affirmed.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

No. 22–6389. Argued November 27, 2023—Decided May 23, 20241

These cases concern the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act to state drug convictions that occurred before recent technical amendments to the federal drug schedules. ACCA imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on defendants who are convicted for the illegal possession of a firearm and who have a criminal history thought to demonstrate a propensity for violence. As relevant here, a defendant with “three previous convictions” for “a serious drug offense” qualifies for ACCA’s enhanced sentencing. 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(1). For a state crime to qualify as a “serious drug offense,” it must carry a maximum sentence of at least 10 years’ imprisonment, and it must “involv[e] . . . a controlled substance . . . as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act.” §§924(e)(1), (2)(A)(ii).

   Under the categorical approach, a state drug offense counts as an ACCA predicate only if the State’s definition of the drug in question “matche[s]” the definition under federal law. Shular v. United States589 U. S. 154, 158. The question presented is whether a state crime constitutes a “serious drug offense” if it involved a drug that was on the federal schedules when the defendant possessed or trafficked in it but was later removed.

   Petitioners Justin Rashaad Brown and Eugene Jackson were separately convicted of the federal crime of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of §922(g)(1). In both cases, an ACCA enhancement was recommended based on prior state felony drug convictions. And both defendants argued that their prior convictions did not qualify as “serious drug offense[ s].”

    Brown’s presentence report identified several Pennsylvania drug convictions, including four convictions for possessing marijuana with intent to distribute. At the time of Brown’s marijuana convictions, the federal and Pennsylvania law definitions of marijuana matched. But while Brown’s federal §922(g)(1) charge was pending, Congress modified the federal definition of marijuana. Because the federal and state definitions did not fully match when Brown was sentenced, Brown argued that his marijuana convictions no longer qualified as “serious drug offense[s]” for purposes of the ACCA sentencing enhancement.

   Jackson’s presentence report identified several prior Florida convictions, including convictions in 1998 and 2004 for possession and distribution of cocaine. In 2015, the Federal Government amended the federal definition of cocaine, so the federal and Florida definitions no longer matched when Jackson committed his §922(g)(1) offense. Like Brown, Jackson argued that these prior convictions no longer qualified as “serious drug offense[s].” In both cases, the District Courts disagreed and sentenced petitioners to enhanced sentences, and the respective appellate courts ultimately affirmed.

Held: A state drug conviction counts as an ACCA predicate if it involved a drug on the federal schedules at the time of that conviction. Pp. 4–19.

  (a) The parties propose three different answers to the question whether the federal and state definitions of a drug must match when the state crime is committed or at some later point in time. The Government argues that a prior state drug conviction qualifies if the federal and state definitions of the relevant drug matched when the defendant committed the state crime. Jackson argues instead that the definitions must match when the defendant violates the federal felon-in-possession statute. Finally, Brown contends that the definitions must match when the defendant is sentenced for the federal felon-in-possession offense. Pp. 4–7.

  (b) Precedent and statutory context support the Government’s interpretation. ACCA gauges what a defendant’s “history of criminal activity” says about his or her “culpability and dangerousness.” McNeill v. United States563 U. S. 816, 823. In previous cases, the Court has held that ACCA requires sentencing courts to examine the law as it was when the defendant violated it. This “backward-looking” approach, id., at 820, supports the Government’s interpretation. And the plain language of the statute points to the same conclusion. Section 924(e)(2)(A)(i), which immediately precedes the provision at issue, defines a “serious drug offense” to include, among other things, “offense[s] under the Controlled Substances Act.” A later change in a federal drug schedule does not change the fact that an offense “under  the [CSA]” is a “serious drug offense.” The Government’s interpretation would treat state offenses “involving . . . a controlled substance (as defined in [the CSA])” like those federal offenses “under the [CSA].” Petitioners’ interpretations, by contrast, would treat those federal and state offenses differently, i.e., the federal offense would remain an ACCA predicate, but the state offense would not. Pp. 7–9.

  (c) The Government’s interpretation also best fulfills ACCA’s statutory objectives. In Congress’s view, defendants who have repeatedly committed ACCA predicate offenses are “especially likely to inflict grave harm when in possession of a firearm,” so ACCA imposes a higher punishment when they do so. Wooden v. United States595 U. S. 360, 375. Because a defendant’s “history of criminal activity” does not “cease to exist” merely because the crime was later redefined, McNeill, 563 U. S., at 823, it makes sense to ask whether a prior offense met ACCA’s definition of seriousness at the time it was committed. Brown’s and Jackson’s contrary arguments misunderstand the theory on which ACCA is based. A prior drug conviction for an offense punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment augurs a risk of future dangerousness even if the drug is no longer considered dangerous. Indeed, in McNeill, the Court found “absurd” petitioner’s argument that a later reduction in the maximum sentence for his offense reflected a legislative judgment that his prior offense was less serious than previously thought. Id., at 822. The “subsequent chang[e] in state law” did not “erase [the] earlier conviction.” Id., at 823. And it was the fact of that earlier conviction—not the legislature’s subsequent judgment—that ACCA was concerned with, because that fact “demonstrate[d]” the defendant’s “culpability and dangerousness.” Ibid. Pp. 9–12.

  (d) Petitioners various other arguments are unpersuasive. Pp. 12–19.

   (1) Relying on the so-called reference canon, Jackson claims that ACCA “incorporates [the] schedules . . . ‘as [they] exis[t] whenever a question under [ACCA] arises.’ ” Brief of Petitioner Jackson 32. The reference canon provides that a statutory reference to a “general subject” incorporates “the law on that subject as it exists whenever a question under the statute arises.” Jam v. International Finance Corp.586 U. S. 199, 209 (emphasis added). But a reference “to another statute by specific title or section number”—such as ACCA’s reference to 21 U. S. C. §802—“in effect cuts and pastes the referenced statute as it existed when the referring statute was enacted.” Ibid. Even assuming that there may be contexts in which references to specific statutory provisions may be considered general, it is hard to see the phrase “as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act” as anything but a specific reference. Jackson’s alternative argument—that his reading is required by the “settled legal principle” that “the law that  sets the penalty for a federal crime is the law in place when the crime was committed”—simply begs the question what §924(e)(2)(a)(ii) means. Pp. 12–14.

   (2) Brown suggests that present-tense language in ACCA’s definition of a “serious drug crime”—language such as “involving” and “as defined in”—indicates a present-day focus requiring courts to look to the drug schedules in effect at the time of federal sentencing. The Court rejected that approach in McNeill, holding that ACCA requires a historical inquiry into the state law at the time of that prior offense and that “[u]se of the present tense . . . did not suggest otherwise.” 563 U. S., at 820Brown also claims that his reading is required by United States v. Schooner Peggy, 1 Cranch 103, 110, which says that when the law changes while a case is in progress, the case must be decided under the new law. But §924(e)(2)(A)(ii) has not changed at any point in the litigation. Pp. 15–17.

   (3) Petitioners’ additional arguments do not persuade. Petitioners assert that this Court’s interpretation is underinclusive because it would preclude ACCA enhancements for state offenses involving drugs added to the federal lists only after the state crimes were committed. But none of the parties’ interpretations captures all cases involving career criminals. Petitioners next suggest that the Government’s interpretation is absurd because it would exclude all state drug convictions before the CSA’s enactment in 1970. But there are reasons Congress might have chosen not to court either federal or state drug convictions that occurred before 1970. Petitioners also argue that the Government’s interpretation would unduly burden courts and defendants by requiring them to undertake the laborious task of digging up old federal drug schedules and comparing those to the state laws the defendants violated, but petitioners overstate the difficulty of this task. Finally, petitioners contend that the rule of lenity counsels in favor of their interpretations. But lenity applies only if a statute remains grievously ambiguous, and here context, precedent, and statutory design adequately show “ ‘what Congress intended.’ ” United States v. Castleman572 U. S. 157, 173. Pp 17–19.

No. 22–6389, 47 F. 4th 147, and No. 22–6640, 55 F. 4th 846, affirmed.

Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and ThomasSotomayorKavanaugh, and Barrett, JJ., joined. Jackson, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kagan, J., joined, and in which Gorsuch, J., joined as to Parts I, II, and III.


1  Together with No. 22–6640, Jackson v. United States, on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Source:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/22-6389

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