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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Burgess v. United States: Misdemenaor=Felony

The federal Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), doubles the mandatory minimum sentence for certain federal drug crimes if the defendant was previously convicted of a "felony drug offense." Burgess pled guilty to a federal crack charge carrying 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, but that mandatory minimum sentence was doubled to 20 years based on a prior South Carolina misdemeanor drug conviction that carried a maximum sentence of two years. Burgess argued that "felony drug offense" has two components: it must be a felony and it must carry a sentence of in excess of one year; since South Carolina classified his prior offense as a misdemeanor, it could not qualify despite the maximum potential punishment of two years. The Supreme Court rejected this contention, holding instead that the federal statutory definition controls, and that 21 U.S.C. § 802(44) is the exclusive definition of the term "felony drug offense" in § 841(b)(1)(A); under that definition, a state drug offense punishable by more than one year qualifies as a felony drug offense, even if the state law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor.