Sneed: Eleventh Circuit Holds Sentencing Courts May Not Rely on Police Reports to Determine whether Prior Crimes Were Committed on Different Occasions for ACCA Purposes

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court decided U.S. v. Sneed. In this Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) case, the Court decided that U.S. v. Shepard, decided by the Supreme Court in 2005, abrogated the Eleventh Circuit’s 2000 decision in U.S. v. Richardson. The Court held that sentencing courts may look only to Shepard-approved material and facts to which the defendant has assented (such as undisputed facts in the PSI) in determining whether ACCA prior offenses were committed on different occasions.

As we explained in this post, the ACCA provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for federal criminal defendants who have three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Those offenses must have been committed on temporally distinct occasions. In Sneed, the defendant had three previous drug convictions that were charged in a single indictment in Alabama. The state indictment did not provide dates or times for the offenses, so the district court looked to police reports attached to the government’s sentencing memorandum to determine that the offenses were committed on different occasions.

In 2000, the Eleventh Circuit held in Richardson that “determining whether crimes were committed on occasions different from one another requires looking at the facts underlying the prior convictions.” In that case, police reports showed that the prior crimes had been temporally distinct and their accuracy was not contested. The Eleventh Circuit relied on the police reports and concluded that the crimes were distinct.

The Supreme Court decided Shepard in 2005, holding that sentencing courts may only consult certain materials in determining the nature of a defendant’s prior convictions for purposes of ACCA. The Court expressly rejected police reports and stressed developments in the law, Jones and Apprendi in particular, addressing the constitutional concerns requiring a jury’s finding of a disputed fact about prior convictions where that fact is essential to increase a potential sentence. Shepard-approved materials include charging documents, plea agreements, transcripts of plea colloquies, findings of fact and conclusions of law from bench trials, and jury instructions and verdict forms.

The Eleventh Circuit stated that Richardson‘s conclusion that courts may look to certain facts underlying prior convictions for the different occasions inquiry is still correct, but held that Shepard abrogated its approval of the use of police reports. Although Shepard addressed a different ACCA determination, the two statutory predicates (type of offense and different occasions) are contained in the same sentence. The Eleventh Circuit held that “there is simply no distinction left” between type of offense and different occasions inquiries for the scope of permissible evidence to be different in determining each statutory predicate.

The bottom line is that the defendant’s mandatory minimum 15-year sentence is tossed, although he still faces a potential max of 10 years for being a felon in possession.

The opinion in this case is available here.