The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Coleman on Friday, August 26, 2011.
The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sentence. Petitioner was convicted of selling crack cocaine and marijuana on three separate occasions in 2002, in violation of Oklahoma’s Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act; because he was between the ages of 16 and 17 when he committed these crimes, the state court adjudicated Petitioner under Oklahoma’s Youthful Offender Act. In 2009, Petitioner pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. Petitioner’s presentence report determined that his drug-trafficking convictions qualified as “serious drug offenses” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and recommended the application of the armed career offender guideline. Under the ACCA, Petitioner’s minimum term of imprisonment is fifteen years. The district court sentenced Petitioner to twenty years’ imprisonment, and he now appeals the sentence.
Petitioner contends that the drug-trafficking crimes he committed as a juvenile cannot constitute serious drug offenses under the ACCA. He alleges that the maximum sentence a youthful offender can receive is ten years’ imprisonment and if that juvenile conviction is converted to a criminal conviction, then the maximum sentence of the adult conviction is ten years minus the time served in juvenile custody. And because the resulting adult conviction will always be less than ten years, it follows the conviction cannot be for a serious drug offense.
The Court disagreed. Oklahoma law permits a youthful offender to receive a ten-year sentence, and even if it did not, Petitioner’s crimes would still constitute serious drug offenses because the ACCA does not exclude drug-trafficking convictions simply because they are committed by a juvenile. Instead, the Court must look to the relevant criminal statute, not an external limit on a court’s sentencing authority, to determine whether a violation of state law constitutes a serious drug offense under the ACCA. Because the relevant criminal statute in this case, Oklahoma’s Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act, carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, the district court did not err in determining Petitioner’s drug-trafficking convictions are serious drug offenses.