Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When do prior convictions become final for federal sentencing purposes?

On June 22, 2012, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Suarez that upon successfully completing California’s deferred entry of judgment program, that conviction cannot be subsequently used in a later federal sentencing for a California drug charge.

As held in People v. Mazurette, 14 P.3d 277, 230 (Cal.2001), if a defendant successfully completes a rehabilitation program, the charges against him would be dismissed. This is done because it has been found that most nonviolent drug offenders could benefit much more from treatment and education than from jail and a criminal record. California’s deferred entry of judgment (“DEJ”) allows such an alternative, as it permits eligible defendants to be diverted out of the criminal court and into a drug rehabilitation program.

Here, the 9th Circuit held in that when a plea never ripens into a final judgment or a legally cognizable sentence, there is no “final” prior conviction for purposes of later drug charge sentencing. Thus, to apply a mandatory minimum sentence based on a previous drug conviction that was resolved via DEJ would be in error.

Suarez's conviction was affirmed, sentence vacated and remanded for resentencing in conformity with this opinion.

United States v. Suarez, 9th Cir; June 22, 2012; 10-10393