Impact of Prior State Drug Convictions on Federal Sentences

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently tackled a complicated issue involving the application of New York state drug laws to the federal sentencing guidelines for a defendant convicted of possessing Xanax with the intent to distribute and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. In United States v. Townsend, the Second Circuit took a critical step forward in not penalizing federal criminal defendants as harshly just because they have a prior state criminal drug conviction.

Prior State Drug Convictions

Prior State Drug Convictions

Defendant Tyrek Townsend had a prior conviction in a New York state case involving the sale of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG), a pregnancy hormone, as a dieting aid. He was convicted under New York Penal Law § 220.31 for fifth degree criminal distribution of a controlled substance, which specifically incorporates by reference the list of controlled substances published by New York state law. In light of this prior conviction for a crime involving a controlled substance, the federal district court imposed an enhanced sentence of seven years for Townsend's possession conviction. What made this case particularly interesting is that although HCG is considered a controlled substance under New York state law, it is not one of the listed controlled substances on the federal level. Thus, the Second Circuit was left to resolve the discrepancy in sentence length that the federal criminal sentencing guidelines would impose by looking to prior convictions under state law.

The Second Circuit ultimately reasoned that it did not make sense that one defendant with a prior criminal drug conviction in a state with harsher or more inclusive controlled substance lists should receive a tougher federal criminal sentence than a defendant in a state without such guidelines. While it is certainly possible that the federal controlled substance list could be amended at a later date to include even more banned substances, until that happens, federal criminal defendants will not be subjected to harsher criminal sentences based on their own states' laws that include more banned substances than would be considered at the federal level. The goal in this decision was more uniformity and fairness in the application of state laws covering prior drug convictions in federal sentencing decisions.

The Impact of United States v. Townsend on Federal Criminal Sentencing

The outcome of United States v. Townsend is a positive development for those convicted of or facing sentencing for a federal crime with a prior state law drug conviction on their record. The Second Circuit will not factor in a prior state law conviction involving a substance that is not also listed on the federal list of controlled substances for purposes of sentencing. This means that federal defendants will not be overly penalized for prior state convictions involving a controlled substance that is not banned on the federal level.

It is important to bear in mind that this case is fairly recent and may not be top of mind for federal judges deciding subsequent sentencing issues. As such, it is vital to retain the services of a proactive federal criminal defense attorney when challenging a conviction or sentencing issue. This will ensure that you are able to take advantage of similar positive developments in major appellate criminal cases that might otherwise get overlooked during sentencing hearings.

Analyzing Prior Drug Convictions as an Aspect of Your Federal Sentencing Appeal

Challenging a federal criminal charge with a prior drug conviction on your record is a complex endeavor. The best way to make sure that you or a loved one are not wrongly subjected to a tougher federal criminal sentence is to retain the services of an experienced and knowledgeable federal criminal defense advocate, such as Brandon Sample, Esq.

Attorney Brandon Sample has litigated many federal appeals cases, written extensively on this topic and served as a consultant on many issues involving federal sentencing guidelines, including for crimes involving drug charges and for clients with prior drug convictions. Call Brandon Sample right away at 802-444-HELP to get started on crafting a proactive legal defense in your criminal case.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Recommended for you

Newsletter July 2nd, 2021

NEWSLETTER July 2, 2021 Welcome to the weekly edition of our newsletter. VIEWS ON THE LAW [-] Borden and 924(c) Whenever the Supreme Court invalidates part of a criminal statute, the question comes up about whether the Court’s reasoning could affect similar statutes and whether this opens the door for relief. The Court held in…

Read More about Newsletter July 2nd, 2021

Amendment 782 Motion Reconsideration

Reinaldo Rivera moved for 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) relief based on Amendment 782 to the Guidelines, commonly known as “drugs minus 2.” The district court granted the motion and reduced his sentence to 420 months from LIFE. But in doing so, the district court believed Rivera’s mandatory minimum was 30 years for his CCE conviction.…

Read More about Amendment 782 Motion Reconsideration

Drug Treatment And Vocational Training Improper Sentencing Considerations

Christopher Thornton moved for a downward variance at sentencing arguing, among other things, that “in-prison treatment during the proposed thirty-eight months would help mitigate any potential risk he posed to the community.” The district court denied the motion, but in doing so said that Thornton had “mental-health issues, and he needs drug treatment” and that…

Read More about Drug Treatment And Vocational Training Improper Sentencing Considerations