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October 19, 2015
  United States v. Hunt -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Hypothetical Isn't Helpful: Fourth Circuit Remands Hunt's Case to Ensure Sentencing Enhancements Were Supported By Facts

Areas of Law: Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether a defendant's prior convictions should be re-examined to determine if the trial court impermissibly considered hypothetical sentence enhancements.

Brief Summary: Bobby Ray Hunt was subjected to a sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) based on the district court's assessment of his prior criminal conduct. In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that Hunt's sentence should be reconsidered because of the court's decision in United States v. Newbold. Hunt had two prior convictions in 1987 that were used by the government to justify giving him a longer sentence for his 2012 conviction. The Fourth Circuit held Hunt's sentence should be reconsidered to determine whether these 1987 convictions were serious drug offenses under the ACCA.

Extended Summary: In 1987, Bobby Ray Hunt was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and delivery of controlled substances. Hunt was also convicted of burning a house, and has two 1988 convictions for possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. These prior convictions became relevant in 2012, when Hunt pled guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). In the 2012 case, the district court found Hunt's three previous convictions qualified him for increased sentencing penalties under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). As such, the district court sentenced Hunt to 180 months of incarceration.

The ACCA mandates that an individual who is convicted of violating § 922(g) and has three prior convictions for either "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses" must be given the statutory minimum sentence of 180 months in prison. The test for whether a conviction qualifies as a violent felony or a serious drug offense turns on the maximum potential penalty that an individual could have received at sentencing. In the present case, Hunt challenged the sentencing court's decision to consider his 1987 convictions for possession with intent to deliver and delivery of controlled substances, arguing that neither qualified as a serious drug offense under the ACCA.

In 2012 the Fourth Circuit decided United States v. Simmons. Simmons held that a man's first-time conviction for non-aggravated possession of marijuana should not have been considered when sentencing him under the Controlled Substances Act. This was because the trial court considered hypothetical sentencing enhancements to determine the maximum penalty for the aforementioned offense. Simmons established that when considering whether a prior conviction qualifies an individual for sentencing enhancement in a subsequent incident, the court must consider the actual penalties sought by prosecutors and not hypothetical enhancements that could have been pursued but were not.

Hunt filed a challenge to his sentence based on Simmons that was denied by the district court. However, while his appeal of that denial was pending before the Fourth Circuit, the court decided United States v. Newbold. The Fourth Circuit in Newbold recognized that the principle of Simmons applied to prior offense schemes under the ACCA, and that in Newbold's case the original offense did not qualify the defendant for an enhanced sentence. The sentencing court in Newbold did not articulate sufficient aggravating factors to prove the conviction was punishable by more than the default three-year tem. Because of this, the Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence and returned Newbold's case to the district court.

Based on the reasoning from Newbold, the Fourth Circuit in this case vacated Hunt's sentence, holding that "in light of [the holding in Newbold] we conclude that the district court should reconsider its determinations that Hunt's 1981 convictions were not serious drug offenses under the ACCA and that Hunt's 1987 convictions were serious drug offenses." Hunt's case will now return to the district court to examine whether the original convictions were properly considered in his current sentence.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Shedd, Agee and Davis

Argument Date: N/A

Date of Issued Opinion: 09/10/2015

Docket Number: Case No. 14-6703

Decided: Vacated and remanded to the district court

Case Alert Author: Benjamin Garmoe, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Thomas P. McNamara, Federal Public Defender, Halerie F. Mahan, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Thomas G. Walker, United States Attorney, Jennifer P. May-Parker, Shalika S. Kotiya, Assistant United States Attorneys, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Per curiam

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 10/19/2015 11:07 AM     4th Circuit  

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