On June 6, 2011 the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in McNeill v. United States, No. 10-5258, holding that a court must look to the maximum available sentence under state law at the time of conviction to determine whether the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides a sentencing enhancement for a "serious drug offense."

In August 2008, petitioner Clifton Terelle McNeill pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base.  At sentencing, the District Court found that the 15-year minimum prison sentence enhancement under the ACCA applied because McNeill had three previous convictions for "a violent felony or serious drug offense."  18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1).  The ACCA defines "serious drug offenses" as certain offenses "for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law."  18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2).  McNeill had conceded that two of his previous convictions met the statutory definition but argued that none of his six prior drug trafficking convictions were for "serious drug offenses," because—although he was convicted of crimes that imposed a ten-year maximum sentence and he in fact received ten-year sentences—state law later reduced the maximum available sentence for those crimes to less than ten years.  The district court determined that the ACCA required federal courts to look to the maximum available sentence at the time of the conviction to determine whether an offense qualifies as a "serious drug offense," and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the result.

The Supreme Court affirmed.  The Court held that the text of the ACCA mandated that a federal court look to the maximum available sentence at the time of conviction for the state offense.  The ACCA's use of the phrase "previous conviction" imposes a "backward-looking question." Interpretations of other provisions of the ACCA, including those that the term "violent felony" under section 924(e)(1), also supported the Court's decision:  The Court reasoned that it previously looked to the version of state law at the time of conviction to determine whether the offense was a "violent felony" under the ACCA.  Finally, the Court noted the "absurd results" that would follow from McNeill's proposed reading, which would render the sentencing enhancement of the ACCA dependent on the date of federal sentencing. 

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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