749 F.3d 417 (6th Cir. 2014), 11-6489, United States v. Pritchett

Docket Nº:11-6489, 11-6490, 11-6491, 11-6495
Citation:749 F.3d 417
Opinion Judge:BELL, District Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. HARRY ALLEN PRITCHETT (11-6489), JESSIE H. JOHNSON (11-6490), EDDIE ROLLINS (11-6491), and MIKE COFFELT (11-6495), Plaintiffs-Appellants
Attorney:James Woolard, MILLER CANFIELD, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellant in 11-6495. Scott A. Winne, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee. James Woolard, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL FEDERAL APPELLATE LITIGATION CLINIC, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Melissa M. Salina, OFFICE ...
Judge Panel:Before: BATCHELDER, Chief Judge; GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge; BELL, District Judge[*].
Case Date:April 09, 2014
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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749 F.3d 417 (6th Cir. 2014)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

HARRY ALLEN PRITCHETT (11-6489), JESSIE H. JOHNSON (11-6490), EDDIE ROLLINS (11-6491), and MIKE COFFELT (11-6495), Plaintiffs-Appellants

Nos. 11-6489, 11-6490, 11-6491, 11-6495

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

April 9, 2014

Argued November 20, 2013.

Petition for certiorari filed at, 07/03/2014

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee of Chattanooga. No. 1:09-cr-181--Curtis L. Collier, District Judge.

ARGUED:

James Woolard, MILLER CANFIELD, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellant in 11-6495.

Scott A. Winne, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

James Woolard, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL FEDERAL APPELLATE LITIGATION CLINIC, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Melissa M. Salina, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Toledo, Ohio, Dennis G. Terez, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant in 11-6495.

Michael J. Stengel, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant in 11-6489.

Charles P. Dupree, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant in 11-6490.

T. Clifton Harviel, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant in 11-6491.

Scott A. Winne, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before: BATCHELDER, Chief Judge; GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge; BELL, District Judge[*].

OPINION

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BELL, District Judge.

Four defendants who were convicted of a methamphetamine conspiracy have raised multiple challenges to their convictions and sentences. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In January 2007, members of the Marion County sheriff's department found a number of individuals in possession of " ice" methamphetamine during traffic stops. An investigation was initiated which included controlled purchases of methamphetamine by a confidential informant. The investigation led to a series of indictments charging 39 individuals with a methamphetamine conspiracy and associated drug and firearms offenses.

Four defendants, Appellants Harry Pritchett, Jessie Johnson, Eddie Rollins and Mike Coffelt, went to trial. After a fourteen-day jury trial, all four were found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine (Count 1) and conspiracy to possess a listed chemical -- pseudoephedrine and iodine -- with knowledge that the chemical would be used to manufacture methamphetamine (Count 2). Pritchett, Rollins and Coffelt were additionally found guilty of associated offenses.1 With respect to Pritchett and

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Coffelt, the jury found that the conspiracy charged in Count 1 involved 50 grams or more of methamphetamine (actual) or 500 grams or more of a mixture containing methamphetamine. With respect to Rollins and Johnson, the jury found that the conspiracy involved 5 grams of methamphetamine (actual) or 50 grams of a mixture containing methamphetamine. Pritchett was sentenced to 240 months in prison; Rollins was sentenced to 360 months in prison; Johnson was sentenced to 97 months in prison; and Coffelt was sentenced to 240 months in prison.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Prior Drug Conviction

Coffelt appeals the trial court's enhancement of his sentence pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) for a drug conviction from 2006. The sentence enhancement was based on Coffelt's March 2006 guilty plea to one count of felony possession of methamphetamine. He received a four-year term of probation under Tennessee's judicial diversion statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-313. Although Coffelt acknowledges that he pled guilty in 2006 to a drug offense, Coffelt successfully completed his term of probation on March 15, 2010, and an Order of Expungement and Dismissal was entered on August 18, 2010. Coffelt contends that his plea should not have been used to enhance his sentence because it was entered pursuant to the Tennessee judicial diversion statute, which provides that upon successful completion of probation, the charges are dismissed and the defendant is discharged without adjudication of guilt, and specifically provides that the discharge is not a conviction. Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-313(a)(2).

The issue for our consideration is whether a plea that was dismissed and expunged under a state judicial diversion program, with no adjudication of guilt and no entry of judgment, is a qualifying conviction for purposes of a sentence enhancement under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). " This court reviews de novo the legal conclusion that a prior conviction is a qualifying offense under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)." United States v. Corona, 493 F.Appx. 645, 653 (6th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 1268, 185 L.Ed.2d 184 (2013) (citing United States v. McGrattan, 504 F.3d 608, 610 (6th Cir. 2007)).

The trial court determined that it was bound by Sixth Circuit precedent, specifically United States v. Miller, 434 F.3d 820 (6th Cir. 2006), to find that Coffelt had a qualifying prior drug conviction. (Dkt. No. 1484, Sent. Tr. at 33-35.) In Miller we observed that " alternative sentencing such as that utilized by Georgia in its first-offender provision does not prevent the underlying offense from being treated as a prior conviction for purposes of federal sentencing statutes." Id. at 824. See also United States v. Graham, 622 F.3d 445, 460 n.15 (6th Cir. 2010) (noting that this circuit has " rejected the argument that a first-offender status adjudication resulting in a sentence of probation is not a 'prior conviction for a felony drug offense [that] has become final' for § 841 purposes" (citing Miller, 434 F.3d at 824)). Although Miller appears to suggest that we have determined that a deferred adjudication is a " prior conviction" under § 841, the issue of whether the plea under the Georgia first-offender statute was a prior conviction was not before us in Miller . Miller conceded that his deferred adjudication of

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guilt was a prior conviction, so the only issue before the court was whether the conviction ever became " final." Id. at 822, 823. Accordingly, Miller is not controlling on whether Coffelt's plea is a prior conviction. See BDT Prods., Inc. v. Lexmark Int'l, Inc., 602 F.3d 742, 750 (6th Cir. 2010) ( " [O]ne panel of [the Sixth Circuit] is not bound by dicta in a previously published panel opinion." quoting United States v. Burroughs, 5 F.3d 192, 194 (6th Cir.1993)). The issue of whether a plea under a state alternative sentencing statute is a prior conviction under § 841 is an open issue that we must address for purposes of this appeal.

Section 841(b)(1)(A) provides that, for purposes of a conviction involving 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, or 500 grams or more of a mixture containing methamphetamine, " if any person commits such a violation after a prior conviction for a felony drug offense has become final, such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 20 years . . . ." 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). " When a term is undefined, we give it its ordinary meaning." Id. (quoting United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507, 511, 128 S.Ct. 2020, 170 L.Ed.2d 912 (2008)). " 'As in all cases of statutory construction, our task is to interpret the words of [the statute] in light of the purposes Congress sought to serve.'" Dickerson v. New Banner Inst., Inc., 460 U.S. 103, 118, 103 S.Ct. 986, 74 L.Ed.2d 845 (1983) (quoting Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Org., 441 U.S. 600, 608, 99 S.Ct. 1905, 60 L.Ed.2d 508 (1979)). In Graham, after noting that § 841 does not define " prior conviction," we looked to the following definitions as an aid to understanding the ordinary meaning of the term " conviction" :

Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) defines " conviction" in part as " [t]he act or process of judicially finding someone guilty of a crime; the state of having been proved guilty," and as " [t]he judgment (as by a jury verdict) that a person is guilty of a crime." Webster's Third International Dictionary (1986) defines " conviction" in part as " the act of proving, finding, or adjudging a person guilty of an offense or crime . . . ; specif: the proceeding of record by which a person is legally found guilty of any crime esp. by a jury and on which the judgment is based."

Graham, 622 F.3d at 458.

Coffelt contends that because the Tennessee statute specifically provides that there has been no adjudication of guilt, his plea does not meet the ordinary meaning of " conviction."

Whether something is a prior conviction for purposes of § 841 is governed by federal law rather than state law. See United States v. Ortega, 150 F.3d 937, 948 (8th Cir. 1998) (joining the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Circuits in holding that federal law governs the definition of a prior conviction under § 841). As noted by the Fifth Circuit, " state law could be looked to 'for informational purposes, but we are not bound by its treatment of a felony conviction when we apply the federal sentence-enhancement provisions.'" United States v. Cisneros, 112 F.3d 1272, 1280 (5th Cir. 1997) (quoting United States v. Morales, 854 F.2d 65, 68 (5th Cir.1988)). In determining the meaning of " conviction" under federal law, courts look to the substance of what occurred, rather than to the specific provisions contained in the state statute. In discussing the term " conviction" under the gun control act, the Supreme Court has noted that in some circumstances, " a guilty plea alone [is] enough to constitute a 'conviction.'" Dickerson, 460 U.S. at 112. " 'A plea of guilty differs in

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