A federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled on Friday that a man convicted of a federal firearm by felon charge should be released from prison. The ruling comes in the wake of U.S. v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (2011), a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case decided in August 2011 that held that federal prosecutors and judges had misinterpreted the definition of “felony” in both convicting and sentencing people accused of federal crimes.
The decision is a technical interpretation of what it means to be have a felony for federal criminal purposes. Until 2011, federal prosecutors and judges applied an interpretation that so long as a person was convicted in a state court of a crime for which someone could conceivably at least 12 months in prison, that person was a convicted felon for federal purposes.
But in August 2011 the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc changed what constitutes a felony conviction under North Carolina’s structured sentencing law. In Simmons, the Court of Appeals held that the federal courts should not look at the theoretical maximum sentence for a worst-case offender in order to determine whether a person was convicted of a felony, but must look at the maximum that that particular defendant could’ve received to see whether that would’ve exceeded 12 months.
The ruling affects people convicted of most Class I and some Class H felonies from the mid-1990s through 2011, and who were subsequently prosecuted under federal law for criminal offenses involving firearms, or who faced certain types of sentencing enhancements based on criminal past.
The ACLU believes that some 3,000 people are affected by the ruling.
The ruling is entirely retrospective, but will continue to affect people who past criminal histories. However, in 2011, following the ruling, the North Carolina General Assembly modified North Carolina’s structured sentencing chart to make anyone convicted of even the lowest Class I felony eligible for at least 12 months in prison.
That means, for federal purposes, anyone convicted of a Class I felony (and up) is a felon.