Burgess v. United States

Burgess pled guilty to conspiracy to two federal drug crimes. The district court sentenced Burgess under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), a sentencing enhancement statute, which requires a twenty-year mandatory minimum sentence for an offense committed "after a prior conviction for a felony drug offense has become final." Burgess had previously been convicted of cocaine possession, a crime classified under state law as a misdemeanor but that is punishable by up to two years in prison. Burgess appealed the imposition of the sentencing enhancement provision to him, arguing that the state misdemeanor conviction was not a "felony drug offense" within the meaning of § 841(b)(1)(A). Burgess rested his argument on two potentially conflicting definitions of "felony": 21 U.S.C. § 802(13) defines a felony as "any Federal or State offense classified by applicable Federal or State law as a felony"; 21 U.S.C. § 802(44) defines "felony drug offense" as "an offense that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year under any law of . . . a State . . . that prohibits or restricts conduct relating to narcotic drugs." Burgess argued that when two provisions of a criminal statute potentially conflict, the rule of lenity requires a court to interpret the statute in favor of the defendant.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence, holding that the term "felony drug offense" is specifically defined by 21 U.S.C. § 802(44) and the definition in 21 U.S.C. § 802(13) does not apply to Burgess.

Questions Presented:

1. Whether the term “felony drug offense” as used in a federal statute requiring imposition of enhanced mandatory minimum 20 years’ imprisonment when the drug offender has “prior conviction for a felony drug offense” must be read in pari materia with federal statutes defining both “felony” and “felony drug offense,” so as to require imposition of a minimum 20-year sentence only if the prior drug conviction is both punishable by more than one year in prison and characterized as a felony by controlling law.

2. When the court finds that a criminal statute is ambiguous, must it then turn to the rule of lenity to resolve ambiguity?

Decision under Review

Supreme Court Opinion