Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Definition of a Conviction

In United States v. Elliot, the Eleventh Circuit just reviewed the question of how to determine whether your client's deferred adjudication is a conviction.  Mr. Elliot had been charged with a robbery in Alabama, and had received a youthful offender adjudication.  Alabama law specifically provides that youthful offender adjudications do not count as criminal history.

All very interesting, says the Eleventh Circuit.  But the Elliot Court found that this youthful offender adjudication not only counts as criminal history, but serves as a career offender predicate underlying a life sentence.  Ouch.  The court reasoned that the definition of "conviction" is a federal law question.  No matter what the state law says, U.S.S.G. 4B1.2(c) provides that a prior conviction may be established by guilty plea, jury verdict, or nolo contendre plea. The Elliot Court then looked to a number of prior cases in which the defendant had entered a nolo contendre plea, and adjudication was withheld, but the resulting proceeding was deemed a conviction under federal law.  Applying that precedent, Elliot concluded that no matter what the state of Alabama thinks, a youthful offender adjudication counts as criminal history because it is analogous to a nolo plea.

While we do not endorse the reasoning in Elliot, the case serves as a stiff reminder to refrain from assumptions drawn from state law when analyzing the status of a prior proceeding under the guidelines.  Mr. Elliot is serving a life sentence because a youthful offender adjudication which is not criminal history under state law served as a career offender predicate offense in a federal prosecution.

Your result may be different, however, if the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act (18 U.S.C. 924(e)) is at issue.  To determine which priors constitute violent felonies under 924(e), what constitutes a conviction is determined in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20).

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