United States v. Fernandez, No. 04 Cr. 539 (RPP)(S.D.N.Y. January 31, 2005)(Judge Patterson)
In an important ruling for defendants who face a 15-year mandatory minimum under the Armed Career Criminal Act (generally known as “A.C.C.A,” and set out in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)), Judge Patterson recently held that a New York State youthful offender adjudication (a “Y.O.”) does not serve as a predicate conviction under this sentence enhancement statute.
Clint Fernandez, who pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)), had the following relevant prior convictions. A 1993 conviction for second-degree robbery, for which he received a Y.O., a 1995 state drug conviction for a Class C felony, and a 1998 state attempted robbery conviction. It was indisputed that the 1995 and 1998 convictions were A.C.C.A. predictates. The only question was whether the 1993 Y.O. was, as well.
The Judge’s Ruling
Under A.C.C.A., if Mr. Fernandez had had three qualifying convictions — that is, for “serious drug offenses,” a definiton met by the 1995 conviction, or “violent felonies,” such as the 1998 attempted robbery, then his conviction felon in possession conviction would have carried a mandatory minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment and a maximum of life, instead of the 10-year maximum (with no mandatory minimum) that ordinarily applies.
Judge Patterson ruled that Mr. Fernandez’ 1993 Y.O., although for robbery, was not an A.C.C.A. predicate. In reaching this conclusion, the judge first looked to 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20), which provides, in pertinent part, that “[a]ny conviction that has been … set aside … shall not be considered a conviction for purposes of this chapter,” which includes A.C.C.A. He then noted that under New York law, a Y.O. adjudication “vacate[s] and replace[s],” or “substitute[s] for” the underlying conviction. Finally, the judge looked at several recent Second Circuit cases upholding the use of Y.O.’s for various guideline enhancement purposes, noting those decisions had all concluded that under New York law, the effect of a Y.O. is to “set aside” the conviction, even though it does not “expunge it,” a feature necessary for the adjudication to be excluded from the sentencing guidelines. See United States v. Matthews, 205 F.3d 544, 548 (2d Cir. 2000); United States v. Cuello, 357 F.3d 162, 167 (2d Cir. 2004). Since, unlike the sentencing guidelines, the federal statute exempts convictions that have been “set aside,” and since New York Y.O. adjudications do in fact “set aside” the underlying conviction, Judge Patterson concluded that a New York Y.O. is not an A.C.C.A. predicate.
This was good news for Mr. Fernandez, who was sentenced to 57 months’ imprisonment, instead of 180.
The Fernandez decision, which the government has not appealed — indeed it agreed in the district court that Y.O.’s are not A.C.C.A. predicates — is significant for another reason. Under its reasoning, a Y.O. cannot serve as the predicte for a felon in possession conviction at all. Thus, if a person is arrested and charged with being a felon in possession under § 922(g)(1), and his only prior felony resulted in a New York Y.O. adjudication, under Fernandez, he is innocent (legally, if not factually) of the crime with which he is charged because he does not have a felony conviction as defined in the relevant firearms statutes.