Monday, September 12th, 2005

Circuit Continues Down the Wrong Road: New York YO Adjudication Qualifies as “Adult Conviction” under Career Offender Guideline

United States v. Brian Jones, Docket No. 04-2506-cr (2d Cir. July 19, 2005): This is a decision from July that we missed before taking our summer hiatus. Guest blogger Darrell Fields of the Appeals Unit of the Federal Defenders in NYC provides the following analysis of this important decision.

In United States v. Jones, 415 F.3d 256 (2d Cir July 19, 2005) , the Circuit held that a New York State youthful offender adjudication (“YO”) qualifies as an “adult conviction” under the Career Offender Guideline (U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1), even though (1) Guidelines commentary specifically provides that a conviction sustained before age 18 will be deemed an “adult conviction” only “if it is classified as an adult conviction under the laws of the jurisdiction in which the defendant was convicted,” id. § 4B1.2, comment. (n.1), and (2) New York State clearly does not so classify a YO adjudication. The unfortunate outcome in Jones was largely preordained, resting as it does on a series of prior decisions in the Circuit permitting the use of New York YO adjudications as prior convictions for an assortment of Guideline calculations. See United States v. Cuello, 357 F.3d 162 (2d Cir. 2004) (YO adjudication can be used for calculating base offense level under the firearms Guideline, § 2K2.1); United States v. Reinoso, 350 F.3d 51 (2d Cir. 2003) (same for calculating base offense level under the illegal reentry Guideline, § 2L1.2); and United States v. Driskell, 277 F.3d 150 (2d Cir. 2002) (same for calculating the criminal history category under § 4A1.1); see also United States v. Mathews, 205 F.3d 544 (2d Cir. 2000) (a YO adjudication is not an expunged conviction).

As noted, the problem with Jones is that the Career Offender Guideline provides explicitly that the relevant question is not how federal courts regard a New York YO, but whether New York itself “classifie[s]” a YO adjudication as an adult conviction. See U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, comment. (n.1) (conviction incurred before age 18 constitutes an adult conviction only “if it is classified as an adult conviction under the laws of the jurisdiction in which the defendant was convicted”) (emphasis added). Thus, the plain language of the Guidelines requires that a YO be “classified as an adult conviction under the laws of [New York]” in order for it to be used as a predicate conviction for determining Career Offender status.

Jones, however, relied solely on federal court cases, principally the four Second Circuit cited above, in reaching its conclusion. Tellingly, Jones cites not a single New York state case; it rests instead on a sort of federal common law view of whether a New York YO should be considered an adult conviction by federal courts.

Rather than defer to how New York classifies YO adjudications, the Circuit used its own definition of adult conviction. It stated that, pursuant to its decision in Cuello, it would follow a “pragmatic approach” under which “[‘]classification as an adult conviction under the laws of New York[‘] does not mean we look to whether New York calls it a conviction, but rather, that we look to the substance of the proceedings.” 415 F.3d at 263. It thus considers “the substantive consequence of the criminal proceeding underlying the youthful offender adjudication” to determine whether, in its view, the defendant was prosecuted and sentenced as an adult. Id. at 264. The Circuit found that Jones’s YO convictions “should be deemed ‘adult convictions’” because he pled guilty “in an adult forum” to both offenses and “received and served a sentence of over one year in an adult prison for each offense.” Id. at 264.

Looking to New York law, as required by the Guidelines commentary, would have yielded a different result. Under New York law, once a teenager is adjudicated a YO, the teen is no longer convicted of a crime. The state’s highest court has held that a youthful offender adjudication “has the practical and legal effect of a reversal[.]” People v. Floyd J., 61 N.Y.2d 895, 897, 474 N.Y.S.2d 476, 477 (N.Y. 1984). And New York’s legislature has specified that a “youthful offender adjudication is not a judgment of conviction for a crime or any other offense[.]” N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 720.35(1). In addition, New York courts have ruled that

– a youthful offender adjudication does not qualify as a predicate conviction under New York’s recidivist sentencing scheme. People v. Kuey, 83 N.Y.2d 278, 285, 609 N.Y.S.2d 568, 571 (1994) (“Under New York law, the court is prohibited from using a prior youthful offender conviction as a predicate”);

– “[s]ince a youthful offender adjudication is not a conviction for a crime, it may not be shown to affect the witness’s credibility.” People v. Cook, 37 N.Y.2d 591, 595, 376 N.Y.S.2d 110, 113 (1975); and

– a person receiving a youthful offender adjudication is not required to pay New York’s “mandatory surcharge,” otherwise assessed upon every conviction of a crime, Floyd J., 474 N.Y.S.2d at 477.

Moreover, a YO does not disqualify a person “so adjudged” from holding “public office or public employment” or from “receiv[ing] any license granted by public authority[.]” N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 720.35(1).

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