ANNAPOLIS – A federal appeals court on Wednesday made it easier for judges to examine details of criminals’ previous convictions to determine if, for sentencing purposes, they are “career offenders.”
The decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was welcomed by the U.S. Attorney for Maryland who predicted it would help prosecutors win stiffer sentences.
But a defense attorney said it opens the door to judges misinterpreting cases years after the fact, as they try to determine if a previous conviction was a “crime of violence.”
“It becomes highly questionable to determine what the person actually admits to” in plea bargains in previous cases, said public defender Denise C. Barrett.
She represented Charles Kirksey, who had three assault and battery convictions in Maryland when he was indicted in December 1996 in two Baltimore bank robberies.
He pleaded guilty to one bank robbery and was sentenced to a mandatory 12.5 years as a career offender — someone convicted of a violent federal crime who has at least two prior violent crime convictions. The prior convictions can be state or federal.
Because Maryland’s assault and battery laws cover behavior as minor as touching a person without consent, however, the U.S. District Court said it could not tell if Kirksey’s prior convictions were really crimes of violence.
After reviewing statements of charges filed in the earlier cases, the district court judge was satisfied that all of them were violent.
Kirksey’s 1980 conviction for robbery with a deadly weapon automatically counted as a violent offense. Statements of charges in the other crimes showed that he was charged with armed robbery, but convicted in 1989 of assault; accused of choking a woman to force her into sex, but convicted in 1990 of battery; and accused of trying to steal $200 with the threat of a knife in 1991, but convicted of battery.
Kirksey argued on appeal that the district court should not have considered those documents, which included such information as witness statements.
But the circuit court disagreed. It said the statement of charges, under Maryland procedure, are essentially part of the charging documents, which judges are already allowed to consult.
“We cannot … agree that the complaining witnesses’ statements in this case may not, in light of Maryland procedure, be consulted,” Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote.
Barrett disagreed with Niemeyer’s statement that “neither party disputes the fact that these underlying records … reveal that Kirksey committed crimes of violence.”
But U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia hailed the ruling.
“It’s easier to prosecute people if you know what the crime involved,” she said.