June 18, 2012
Federal prosecutors in North Carolina have been aware for nearly a year that dozens of North Carolinians currently incarcerated in federal prisons should not be there, but they have done next to nothing to help them, and in at least once case are actually trying to prevent an innocent man’s release, according to an investigation by USA Today.
This bizarre, Kafkaesque, nightmare arose over the past nine years, as federal courts in North Carolina misapplied a federal law making gun possession a crime for felons whose prior conviction carried a potential sentence of more than one year in prison. In 1993, North Carolina adopted a new, unique system called “structured sentencing,” which makes potential sentences depend on the individual defendant’s prior criminal record. Thus for the same past crime, two defendants with different criminal records might face very different potential sentences. Nevertheless, for years federal courts ruled that if the potential sentence for a past crime was more than a year for any defendant, then every defendant who committed that crime was legally barred from possessing a gun, and could be convicted of a federal crime and sentenced to federal prison for that.
Last August, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned all those cases, holding that only those defendants whose potential sentence for a past crime could have been more than a year qualify as felons. That means that dozens, and possibly hundreds, of people who did not face a potential sentence of at least one year for their past crimes were convicted and sentenced under an interpretation of the law that was wrong.