Federal Crimes Sentencing Guidelines Career Offender Status

Regarding the federal crimes sentencing guidelines career offender designation, the Eleventh Circuit holds that a youthful offender eighteen years or older who pleads guilty and is adjudicated is considered to have sustained a conviction for purposes of the Guidelines career offender enhancement, even if state law does not consider him "convicted."

In 2002, when Elliot was 20 years old, he robbed a man in Alabama of $150 and a pack of cigarettes while armed with a pistol. Elliot was charged with first-degree robbery and received a youthful offender adjudication (the Alabama Youthful Offender Act applies to anyone who is under 21 years of age), which resulted in a sentence of three years' probation. Elliot was subsequently convicted of second-degree robbery and his probation was revoked. Elliot asserted on appeal that his youthful offender adjudication does not qualify as a conviction for purposes of § 4B1.1 because, under the Alabama youthful offender statute, a defendant is determined to be a youthful offender before there is an arraignment or conviction. Furthermore, he argued, Alabama law prohibits a youthful offender adjudication from counting as a conviction.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument. It noted that the career offender guideline explicitly provides that "a conviction for an offense committed at age eighteen or older is an adult conviction." The Court stated therefore that the question before it was not whether Elliot sustained an adult conviction, but whether he sustained a conviction at all.

The Court then noted that the meaning of "conviction" for purposes of the sentencing enhancement at issue in this case was a matter of federal crime law rather than state crime law. It was not, therefore, bound by the fact that Alabama law does not consider a youthful offender adjudication to be a conviction.

Instead, the Court wrote, its decision was controlled by United States v. Acosta, 287 F.3d 1034, 1037 (11th Cir. 2002) and analogous cases in which the Court had held that a plea of nolo contendere with adjudication withheld is a conviction for purposes of the § 4B1.1 career offender enhancement. If, the Court concluded, a defendant who is not adjudicated guilty is considered to have suffered a conviction within the meaning of § 4B1.1, then a youthful offender who pled guilty and was adjudicated must also be considered to have sustained a conviction for purposes of the Guidelines career offender enhancement, even if state law does not consider him "convicted."

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