http://www.mdattorney.com/lawyer-attorney-1300820.htmlAs a Maryland Federal Criminal Attorney I know that nothing in the federal sentencing guidelines strikes more fear into the hearts of defendants and defense attorneys than the Career Offender provisions, found at section 4B1.1. This section is the most overused and perhaps least understood of all components of the guidelines.
In a nutshell, a criminal defendant is considered a Career Offender if he is currently charged with a violent crime or controlled substance offense and has previously been convicted twice of “a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.” It is basically the federal version of a “third strike” rule. The consequences of being labeled as a career offender are disastrous. First, a defendant’s criminal history category is automatically raised to Category VI—the most serious category in federal law. Second, the offense level for the current charge is also automatically inflated to some of the highest in the guidelines system. In most cases, the level is raised to 37. To give some perspective, level 43 is the highest designation in the sentencing guidelines, and applies to crimes such as 1st degree murder!
Moreover, federal courts have adopted a very wide “strike zone” in determining what constitutes a “controlled substance felony.” While most logical thinkers understand that a controlled substance felony means drug distribution or dealing, federal courts have ruled that a state drug possession conviction can qualify as long as the offense carries a maximum possible punishment of greater than one year. In Maryland, possession of cocaine carries a maximum possible punishment of four years, making it a “felony” for federal purposes, even though the crime is classified as a misdemeanor under state law. So an individual in Maryland who has been twice convicted of cocaine possession will be treated as a career offender if he thereafter is charged in federal court with drug dealing or conspiracy to deal drugs. The results are significant.
A defendant classified as a career offender in a federal drug case will typically face a sentencing range of 30 years – life! Facing such a monstrous guideline range forces many defendants to accept guilty pleas in defensible cases as well as cases where the defendant is actually innocent!