553 U.S. 124 (2008), 06-11429, Burgess v. United States

Docket Nº:06-11429.
Citation:553 U.S. 124, 128 S.Ct. 1572
Opinion Judge:GINSBURG, Justice.
Party Name:Keith Lavon BURGESS, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
Attorney:Jeffrey L. Fisher, by appointment of the Court, 552 U.S. 1138, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Pamela S. Karlan, Amy Howe, Kevin K. Russell, Laurence H. Tribe, and Thomas C. Goldstein. Nicole A. Saharsky argued the cause for the United States. With her on the brief we...
Case Date:April 16, 2008
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 124

553 U.S. 124 (2008)

128 S.Ct. 1572

Keith Lavon BURGESS, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 06-11429.

United States Supreme Court

April 16, 2008

Argued March 24, 2008.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

[128 S.Ct. 1573] Syllabus

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) doubles the mandatory minimum sentence for certain federal drug crimes if the defendant was previously convicted of a "felony drug offense." 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A). Section 802(13) defines the unadorned term "felony" to mean any "offense classified by applicable Federal or State law as a felony," while §802(44) defines the compound term "felony drug offense" to "mea[n] an offense [involving specified drugs] that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of the United States or of a State or foreign country."

Petitioner Burgess pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base, an offense that ordinarily carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. Burgess had a prior South Carolina cocaine possession conviction, which carried a maximum sentence of two years but was classified as a misdemeanor under state law. The Federal Government argued that Burgess' minimum federal sentence should be enhanced to 20 years under §841(b)(1)(A) because his South Carolina conviction was punishable by more than one year's imprisonment. Burgess countered that because "felony drug offense" incorporates the term "felony," a word separately defined [128 S.Ct. 1574] in §802(13), a prior drug offense does not warrant an enhanced §841(b)(1)(A) sentence unless it is both (1) classified as a felony under the law of the punishing jurisdiction, per §802(13); and (2) punishable by more than one year's imprisonment, per §802(44). Rejecting that argument, the District Court ruled that §802(44) alone controls the meaning of "felony drug offense" under §841(b)(1)(A). The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

Because the term "felony drug offense" in §841(b)(1)(A) is defined exclusively by §802(44) and does not incorporate §802(13)'s definition of "felony," a state drug offense punishable by more than one year qualifies as a "felony drug offense," even if state law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor. Pp. 129-136.

(a) The CSA's language and structure indicate that Congress used "felony drug offense" as a term of art defined by §802(44) without reference to §802(13). First, a definition such as §802(44)'s that declares what a term "means" generally excludes any meaning that is not stated.

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E.g., Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379, 99 S.Ct. 675, 58 L.Ed.2d 596, 392-393, n. 10, Second, because "felony" is commonly defined to mean a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, see, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §3559(a), §802(44)'s definition of "felony drug offense" as "an offense . . . punishable by imprisonment for more than one year" leaves no blank for §802(13) to fill. Third, if Congress wanted "felony drug offense" to incorporate §802(13)'s definition of "felony," it easily could have written §802(44) to state: "The term 'felony drug offense' means a felony that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year . . . ." Fourth, the Court's reading avoids anomalies that would arise if both §§802(13) and 802(44) governed application of §841(b)(1)(A)'s sentencing enhancement. Section 802(13) includes only federal and state offenses and would exclude enhancement based on a foreign offense, notwithstanding the express inclusion of foreign offenses in §841(b)(1)(A). Furthermore, Burgess' compound definition of "felony drug offense" leaves unanswered the appropriate classification of drug convictions in state and foreign jurisdictions that do not label offenses as felonies or misdemeanors. Finally, the Court's reading of §802(44) hardly renders §802(13) extraneous; the latter section serves to define "felony" for the many CSA provisions using that unadorned term. Pp. 129-133.

(b) The CSA's drafting history reinforces the Court's reading. In 1988, Congress first defined "felony drug offense" as, inter alia, "an offense that is a felony under . . . any law of a State" (emphasis added), but, in 1994, it amended the statutory definition to its present form. By recognizing §802(44) as the exclusive definition of "felony drug offense," the Court's reading serves an evident purpose of the 1994 revision: to eliminate disparities resulting from divergent state classifications of offenses by adopting a uniform federal standard based on the authorized term of imprisonment. By contrast, Burgess' reading of the 1994 alteration as merely adding a length-of-imprisonment requirement to a definition already requiring designation of an offense as a felony by the punishing jurisdiction would attribute to the amendment little practical effect and encounters formidable impediments: the statute's text and history. Pp. 133-135.

(c) Burgess' argument that the rule of lenity should be applied in determining whether "felony drug offense" incorporates §802(13)'s definition of "felony" is rejected. The touchstone of the rule of lenity is statutory ambiguity. E.g., Bifulco v. United States, [128 S.Ct. 1575] 447 U.S. 381, 387, 100 S.Ct. 2247, 65 L.Ed.2d 205. Because Congress expressly defined "felony drug offense" in a manner that is coherent, complete, and by all signs exclusive, there is no ambiguity for the rule of lenity to resolve here. P. 135.

478 F.3d 658, affirmed.

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Jeffrey L. Fisher, by appointment of the Court, 552 U. S. 1138, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Pamela S. Karlan, Amy Howe, Kevin K. Russell, Laurence H. Tribe, and Thomas C. Goldstein.

Nicole A. Saharsky argued the cause for the United States. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Assistant Attorney General Fisher, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Daniel S. Goodman[*]

OPINION

GINSBURG, Justice.

For certain federal drug offenses, the Controlled Substances Act mandates a minimum sentence of imprisonment for 10 years. 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A). That minimum doubles to 20 years for defendants previously convicted of a "felony drug offense." Ibid. The question in this case is whether a state drug offense classified as a misdemeanor, but punishable by more than one year's imprisonment, is a "felony drug offense" as that term is used in §841(b)(1)(A).

Two statutory definitions figure in our decision. Section 802(13) defines the unadorned term "felony" to mean any "offense classified by applicable Federal or State law as a felony." Section 802(44) defines the compound term "felony drug offense" to mean an offense involving specified drugs that is "punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of the United States or of a State or foreign country."

The term "felony drug offense" contained in §841(b)(1)(A)'s provision for a 20-year minimum sentence, we hold, is defined exclusively by §802(44) and does not incorporate §802(13)'s definition of "felony." A state drug offense punishable by more than one year therefore qualifies as a "felony drug

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offense," even if state law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor.

I

Petitioner Keith Lavon Burgess pleaded guilty in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§841(a) and 846. 1 A [128 S.Ct. 1576] violation of §841(a) involving that quantity of cocaine base ordinarily carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. §841(b)(1)(A). The minimum sentence increases to 20 years, however, if the crime follows a prior conviction for a "felony drug offense." Ibid.

Burgess had previously been convicted of possessing cocaine in violation of S. C. Code Ann. §44-53-370(c) and (d)(1) (2002 and Supp. 2007). Although that offense carried a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment, South Carolina classified it as a misdemeanor. §44-53- 370(d)(1). Burgess' prior South Carolina conviction, the Government urged, raised the minimum sentence for his federal conviction to 20 years. The enhancement was mandatory, the Government maintained, because Congress defined "felony drug offense" to include state cocaine offenses "punishable by imprisonment for more than one year." 21 U.S.C. §802(44). 2

Burgess contested the enhancement of his federal sentence. The term "felony drug offense," he argued, incorporates the term "felony," a word separately defined in §802(13) to mean "any Federal or State offense classified by

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applicable Federal or State law as a felony." A prior drug offense does not rank as a "felony drug offense," he contended, unless it is (1) classified as a felony under the law of the punishing jurisdiction, per §802(13); and (2) punishable by more than one year's imprisonment, per §802(44).

Rejecting Burgess' argument, the District Court ruled that §802(44) alone controls the meaning of "felony drug offense" as that term is used in §841(b)(1)(A). Although the District Court's ruling subjected Burgess to a 20-year minimum sentence, the Government moved for a downward departure based on Burgess' substantial assistance in another prosecution. See 18 U.S.C. §3553(e) (2000 ed., Supp. V). The court granted the motion and sentenced Burgess to 156 months' imprisonment followed by ten years' supervised release.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The "'commonsense way to interpret "felony drug offense,"'" that court said, "'is by reference to the definition in §802(44).'" 478 F.3d 658, 662 (2007) (quoting United States v. Roberson, 459 F.3d 39, 52 (C.A.1 2006)). The Fourth Circuit found nothing in the "plain language or statutory scheme . . . to indicate that Congress intended 'felony drug offense' also to incorporate the definition...

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