A Narrower Test for "Serious Drug Felony" After Intervening Supreme Court Precedent

Three separate opinions in United States v. Fields wrestled with whether a prior Sixth Circuit decision bound the Court in light of intervening Supreme Court precedent. Ultimately, the Court concluded that the Supreme Court's decision was on point, and a new, narrower test applies regarding whether a prior conviction is a "serious drug felony" that supports a higher mandatory sentence under 21 U.S.C. § 841.

A jury convicted Fields of possessing 500 grams or more of methamphetamine with intent to distribute it. The district court found that Fields had two prior serious drug felonies based on two prior Kentucky offenses--one for possessing a methamphetamine “precursor” with intent to manufacture, the other for trafficking in methamphetamine. Because he had two prior serious drug felonies, 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(viii) mandated a minimum 25-year sentence.

On appeal, Fields argued that possessing a methamphetamine precursor was not a serious drug felony because it did not "necessarily entail" manufacturing (or any other conduct described in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii)'s serious-drug-felony definition). Fields acknowledged that the Court had decided in United States v. Eason that a similar Tennessee offense was a serious drug felony because it was "related to or connected with" the conduct in listed in section 924(e)(2)(A)(ii). But he argued that a more recent Supreme Court decision, Shular v. United States, required the Court to use the narrower "necessarily entails" test.

The Court agreed. In Judge White's opinion for the Court, she noted that the Eason Court's decision followed the majority rule at the time, but every circuit to examine the issue after Shular had adopted the narrower "necessarily entails" test. Agreeing with those decisions and finding Shular directly on point, the panel held that Shular effectively overruled Eason. Applying the "necessarily entails" test, the Court concluded that possessing a meth precursor with intent to manufacture was not a "serious drug felony.

Concurring, Judge Murphy reasoned that Shular at least permitted the panel to reexamine Eason. With that door open, Judge Murphy concluded that Shular's narrower definition better fit the statute's text, context, and structure.

Dissenting, Judge Rogers concluded that the Shular Court's "necessarily entails" definition was dictum, and the panel was still bound by Eason. Judge Rogers reasoned that the Court's holding focused on whether the statute required courts to compare a prior offense's elements against a generic offense or against the listed conduct, not on the issue decided in Eason: how closely those elements must match the conduct.

Based on the majority's decision in Fields, the narrower, "necessarily entails" test applies going forward to determine what constitutes a serious drug felony.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...