In a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that turns on the definition of a drug-trafficking crime, FAMM has joined the National Association of Federal Defenders (NAFD) in filing an amicus brief, Toledo-Flores v. United States, No. 05-7664.
Under federal law, a drug-trafficking crime is “any felony punishable under the Controlled Substances Act.” That definition excludes most simple drug possession offenses, unlike the definition used in some state laws that consider simple drug possession a felony.
In Toledo-Flores’ case, the distinction was important. He was convicted in federal court for returning to the United States without permission following deportation, and his sentence was increased significantly based on a prior felony conviction in Texas for simple drug possession.
Had Toledo-Flores’ been convicted in federal instead of state court for simple drug possession, it would have been a misdemeanor. Prior misdemeanors are not used to increase sentences for the crime of returning following deportation. The U.S. Courts of Appeals are split on whether a state felony for simple possession can be considered a felony to enhance a subsequent sentence even though the crime would be a simple misdemeanor under federal law.
FAMM and NAFD argue that the clear language of the statute defining drug-trafficking offenses covers only felonies recognized under federal law and that the Court may not use state felonies to enhance sentences unless federal law also recognizes the conduct as a felony. If the Court finds the language of the statute is not clear, they say, it should resolve any ambiguity in favor of Toledo-Flores, using the “rule of lenity.” This rule counsels that ambiguous criminal statutes be interpreted in favor of the defendants to protect them from being punished for conduct not clearly defined by the laws.
FAMM thanks Henry J. Bemporad of the Federal Public Defenders for the Western District of Texas and Michael C. Holley, of the Federal Public Defenders in the Middle District of Tennessee for their outstanding work on this brief.