Sentencing enhancements can drastically impact prison sentences for people convicted of federal crimes. The career offender enhancement is particularly harmful to a federal criminal defendant because it automatically raises their minimum offense level and criminal history score under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which, although no longer mandatory, are almost always followed by judges in determining actual prison sentences. Since 2016, the career offender enhancement has been applied to almost 8,000 criminal defendants who, at the time of their convictions, had accrued a total of two or more predicate felony convictions, for either a drug offense or a crime of violence enumerated in the Guidelines.
Yet an active circuit split over the definition of a “controlled substance” means that defendants with identical criminal histories could face drastically different guideline sentences. Because the Supreme Court’s categorical approach in Taylor v. United States prohibits the use of “overbroad” predicate convictions for sentencing enhancement purposes, the definition of “controlled substance” is consequential—a state statute criminalizing a broader set of conduct than applicable federal law cannot trigger the career offender enhancement.
Five circuits (the Third, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth) have held that “controlled substances” are defined by applicable state law, sidestepping the categorical approach. In those circuits, a prior conviction for marijuana that includes hemp—now legal federally and in many states—can serve as a predicate offense for the career offender enhancement. Four other circuits (the First, Second, Fifth, and Ninth) have held that “controlled substances” are defined by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In these circuits, overbroad marijuana convictions cannot serve as predicate offenses under the categorical approach because the CSA currently legalizes hemp, while most state statutes before 2018 included hemp as a possible basis for conviction. As a result, criminal defendants in these circuits are spared many years on their prison sentences by avoiding a career offender classification.
This Note argues that the Supreme Court should adopt the latter approach and hold that the CSA defines controlled substance offenses. This recommendation is grounded in analysis of the career offender enhancement’s text, context, purpose, and history.
"To Hemp in a Handbasket: The Meaning of “Controlled Substance” Under the Career Offender Enhancement,"
Georgia Criminal Law Review: Vol. 1:
2, Article 4.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/gclr/vol1/iss2/4