By Greg Mermelstein, Deputy Director & General Counsel, Missouri Public Defender

           A state crime counts as a “serious drug offense” under the Armed Career Criminal Act it if involved a drug that was on the federal schedules when a defendant possessed or trafficked the drug, even if the drug was later removed, the U.S. Supreme Court held May 23 in Brown v. United States.

           ACCA imposes an enhanced penalty for possession of a firearm if a defendant has three prior convictions for a “serious drug offense.”

           For a state crime to qualify as a “serious drug offense”, it must carry a maximum sentence of at least 10 years, and must involve a controlled substance as defined in section 102 of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

           The CSA, in turn, includes five schedules of controlled substances, which are updated periodically.


           Between 2009 and 2014, Justin Brown was convicted in Pennsylvania of various marijuana offenses. 

           In 2018, he was charged with a federal firearm offense.  The Government sought a mandatory minimum under ACCA because of his prior state marijuana convictions.

           At the time Brown was convicted of the marijuana offenses, both federal and Pennsylvania law defined marijuana to include all parts of the plant, so the definitions were a categorical match.

           But while Brown’s federal charge was pending, Congress enacted a law which exempted some hemp from the federal definition of marijuana.

           Brown argued that because the federal and state definitions of marijuana no longer matched, his Pennsylvania offenses no longer qualified as “serious drug offenses” under ACCA.

           The district court rejected his argument, and ruled that the change in federal definition wasn’t retroactive to his Pennsylvania offenses. 

           The Third Circuit affirmed.


           In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court held, as a matter of precedent and statutory interpretation, that the federal definition in effect at the time the state crimes were committed controls.

           Prior cases have held that “ACCA requires sentencing courts to examine the law as it was when the defendant violated it, even if that law is subsequently amended”, the Court said.

           The purpose of ACCA is to impose higher punishment on repeat offenders whose possession of a firearm is likely to cause harm, the Court said.

           “A defendant’s history of criminal activity does not cease to exist merely because the crime was later redefined”, the Court said.  “It therefore makes sense to ask … whether a prior offense met ACCA’s definition of seriousness – and thus suggested future danger – at the time it was committed.”

           “A prior drug conviction for an offense punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment augurs a risk of future dangerousness even if the drug is no longer considered dangerous”, the Court said.  “That is because the conviction reveals that the defendant previously engaged in illegal conduct that created a dangerous risk of violence”, the Court said.

           “That risk does not cease to exist if the law under which the defendant was convicted is later amended or eliminated”, the Court said.

Justice Jackson, joined by Justices Kagan and Gorsuch, dissented.

In a 6-3 opinion, written by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court held, … Justice Jackson, joined by Justices Kagan and Gorsuch, dissented on grounds of statutory interpretation: “But the relevant text does definitively answer the question presented here. And it establishes that courts should apply the drug schedules in effect at the time of the federal firearms offense that triggers ACCA’s potential application. Nothing else—not precedent, context, or purpose—requires a different result.”