Yesterday the Second Circuit decided United States v. Powell, an opinion concerning mandatory minimum sentences.
Powell was convicted of drug dealing, and prosecutors argued that Powell was subject to a mandatory life sentence because (1) his crime involved 50+ grams of crack, and (2) he had previously been convicted of two or more felony drug offenses, as required by the mandatory minimum statute (18 USC 841(b)(1)(a)).
The real question in this appeal concerned the prior felony convictions. Powell had been convicted twice before of dealing crack: once after being arrested in New York City on February 4, 1990, and then again after being arrested in Utica on September 2, 1990. The convictions thus involved arrests that were "separated by seven months and 250 miles." The district court, however, decided to treat the crimes "as one" in what, from the final paragraphs of the CA2's opinion,* seems to have been a pretty transparent attempt to evade the mandatory minimum life sentence.
The CA2, however, held that "[t]wo prior felony drug convictions should be treated as one if and only if the conduct underlying both convictions was part of a 'single criminal episode.' Any other construction would be at odds with both the plain language of the statute -- two means two -- as well as with Congress’ recognized goal in enacting mandatory minimum sentences for recidivist drug offenders." Applying that standard, the court found clear error in the district court's sentence and so vacated and remanded for resentencing. In an unpublished summary order, they also affirmed the judgment of conviction.
* Towards the end of the opinion, the CA2 writes:
We understand the district court’s obvious reluctance to impose a life sentence on a defendant whose prior felony drug convictions were committed years earlier, when the defendant was a minor. We are sympathetic, as well, towards Powell’s "borderline to low average intelligence" and his history of behavioral problems. It is, however, Congress’ prerogative to set mandatory minimums, and in this case the mandatory minimum is life imprisonment. (citation omitted).
Was this necessary? They're sending the man to prison for the rest of his life; did they really have to call him stupid, too?