A new sentencing chart will take effect in North Carolina as of December 1, 2011. For nearly 15 years, the chart remained essentially the same. In 2009, however, the chart was revised. Now the chart is undergoing a new revision. (The new chart will likely be available at www.nccourts.org/Courts/CRS/Councils/spac/Punishment.asp once it’s created.)
The revision in the chart is driven not by state, but by federal law. Over the summer, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down new case law involving the application of certain federal sentencing guidelines in light of state convictions.
Basically, the decision involved the interpretation of what it means to be a felon under federal law. Certain federal laws – including felon-in-possession of a firearm and sentencing enhancements based on felon status – apply a federal definition of felon status to state law. Under federal law, a felon is someone eligible to serve more than 12 months in confinement.
But what does it mean to be eligible? U.S. v. Simmons established that someone considered a felon under state law may not be considered a felon under federal law if that person could not have been eligible for more than 12 months of confinement given the class of crime and the person’s prior record level. To get very technical for a moment, under North Carolina’s sentencing chart as it existed up until December 1, 2011, a person convicted of certain low level felonies was a felon for state purposes, but not a felon for federal purposes.
The North Carolina General Assembly has resolved this issue, making even the lowest level felony – a Class I offender with a Prior Record Level of 1 – a felon for federal purposes by establishing the maximum possible punishment in that sentencing block as 13 months.