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4th Circuit: Marijuana conviction no trigger for enhancement

BOSTON — A prior state conviction for possession of marijuana did not trigger the enhancement of a drug trafficking sentence under federal guidelines, the en banc 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in reversing judgment.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, a prior felony drug conviction increases from five to 10 years the term of imprisonment for a first-time offender who possesses with intent to distribute at least 100 kilograms of marijuana.

In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty to three marijuana trafficking charges.

The government argued that the defendant’s sentence could be enhanced to 10 years under the Act based on a prior North Carolina conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

But the court decided that the prior marijuana conviction did not trigger an enhanced sentence because the defendant did not face the possibility of imprisonment for the state possession charge.

In reaching this conclusion, the court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder that simple possession offenses are not aggravated felonies under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

“Because the state sentencing court never made the recidivist finding necessary to expose [the defendant] to a higher sentence, Carachuri teaches that the government cannot now rely on such a finding to ‘set the maximum term of imprisonment,’” the court wrote in its Aug. 17 opinion.

The case is U.S. v. Simmons, No. 08-4475. RecordFax # 11-0817-60.

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