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July 7, 2010

Eighth Circuit quickly rejects effort to extend Graham to juve priors

In US v. Scott, No. 09-2577 (8th Cir. July 6, 2010) (available here), an Eighth Circuit panel makes quick work of a defendant's claim that his life sentence for drug offenses violated the Eighth Amendment rights because the sentence was based in part on two prior drug felonies committed when he was under 18.  Here is the heart of the defendant's claim and the panel's rejection of it:

Scott argues that the Eighth Amendment prohibits enhancing his sentence based on his previous felony drug convictions because he was a juvenile when he committed those crimes. We note that while Scott committed his prior felony drug offenses as a juvenile, he was charged and convicted of both crimes as an adult.  Nonetheless, we have upheld the use of juvenile court adjudications to enhance subsequent sentences for adult convictions.  See United States v. Smalley, 294 F.3d 1030, 1032-33 (8th Cir. 2002).  Given the holding in Smalley that juvenile court adjudications may be used for enhancement purposes, we see no reason that convictions for crimes committed by juveniles who are convicted as adults cannot be similarly used.

The U.S. Supreme Court cases that Scott cites, Roper and Graham, do not change this result. These decisions established constitutional limits on certain sentences for offenses committed by juveniles.  However, Scott was twenty-five years old at the time he committed the conspiracy offense in this case.  Neither Roper nor Graham involved the use of prior offenses committed as a juvenile to enhance an adult conviction, as here.  The Roper decision addressed the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty for a murder committed by a juvenile and does not call into question our decision in SmalleySee United States v. Kirkland, 450 F.3d 804, 805 (8th Cir. 2006) (applying Smalley after Roper). Similarly, the Court’s analysis in Graham was limited to defendants sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.  The Court in Graham did not call into question the constitutionality of using prior convictions, juvenile or otherwise, to enhance the sentence of a convicted adult. Therefore, we affirm the constitutionality of Scott’s life sentence under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).

I think a lot more could and probably should be said about what Grahamcould and should mean for juve priors as the basis of severe sentence enhancements, but I am not at all surprised that the Eighth Circuit was inclined to give an effort to extend Graham short shrift.

July 7, 2010 at 11:08 AM | Permalink

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