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On Feb. 26, 2020, in a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court decided Shular v. United States, rejecting the defense argument that Florida’s unique drug laws cannot be used to enhance a federal sentence.  At issue was a federal statute known as the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”).  ACCA imposes a mandatory 15-year sentence on defendants convicted of federal firearms-related felonies if they have 3 or more prior convictions for “serious drug offenses” or “violent felonies.”   In 2017, local law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the Florida home of Eddie Shular who was the target of a drug trafficking investigation being conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”).  During the search, the officers seized a firearm from a bedroom closet.  Because Shular was a convicted felon, he was charged under federal law with the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm (18 USC section 922(g)(1)).  He pled guilty to that offense and because he had more than three prior convictions for serious drug offenses, he was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison under the applicable federal statute.  He appealed his sentence arguing that because, under Florida law, none of his state convictions would qualify as a “serious drug offense” because the relevant state laws did not require that the government prove that Shular had “knowledge of the illicit nature of the substance,” and the Florida crimes were, therefore, broader than the generic drug offense analogs under federal law.  

The Eleventh Circuit upheld his conviction and sentence, rejecting the application of the “categorical approach” to defining “serious drug offenses, and holding that the ACCA definition “requires only that the predicate offense involves certain activities related to controlled substances.”  

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that “serious drug offense” requires only that the state offense involves the conduct specified in the statute, and does not require that the state offense in question match certain generic drug offenses under federal law.  

The opinion was written by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Kavanaugh filed a concurring opinion. 

To discuss the case, we have Gregory A. Brower, Shareholder, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.