State and Federal Criminal Laws Conflict with One Another in North Carolina Firearms Case

An unusual conflict between state and federal criminal statutes has caused what is, by all accounts, a great injustice for some federal inmates in North Carolina. USA Today reported recently on how a loophole in the federal definition of a “felony” has resulted in the incarceration of several dozen people for conduct that might have never actually violated federal law. The options for further judicial review of their sentences, such as a petition for habeas corpus, also appear to be few. The people who fell through this loophole may have no effective means, at present, to challenge their imprisonment.

Federal law prohibits “convicted felons” from possessing firearms or ammunition. To account for each state’s distinct definitions of a “felony” or “felon,” Congress defined “felon” in this context as a person convicted of a crime with a potential punishment of more than one year in prison. To qualify as a convicted felon under this statute, an actual prison sentence of more than a year is not required. A person is a “convicted felon” barred from firearm possession if, at the time of their conviction, a jail or prison sentence exceeding one year was possible. Some dispositions with no jail time, such as probation, count as convictions for the purpose of this statute. USA Today reported on the case of Terrell McCullum, who may not be a “convicted felon” under federal law because of certain ambiguities in how his state, North Carolina, determines sentencing.

McCullum pleaded guilty to theft in September 2007. Although he only received probation, the letter of the North Carolina statute said the court could sentence McCullum to more than a year in prison. North Carolina’s “structured sentencing” guidelines, however, determine sentencing based on multiple factors, and McCullum’s circumstances meant he faced a maximum of ten months’ imprisonment. A 2011 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision held that federal prosecutors must consider an individual defendant’s maximum sentence under the structured sentencing guidelines. By this standard, McCullum’s maximum ten-month sentence meant he was not a “convicted felon” under federal law. Unfortunately, he was already in federal prison by the time of the Fourth Circuit’s decision.

Police encountered McCullum in possession of two firearms as he was moving out of his girlfriend’s house in 2007. Upon seeing McCullum’s prior conviction, the police turned the case over the federal prosecutors, who charged him with a federal firearms violation. Even McCullum’s attorneys believed his theft conviction made him a “convicted felon,” so he pleaded guilty. McCullum is now serving a sentence in a federal prison.

In effect, the 2011 Fourth Circuit decision says that McCullum, along with at least sixty other people with similar federal convictions, is innocent of the offense that directly led to his federal imprisonment, possession of a firearm by a “convicted felon.” Federal prosecutors, according to USA Today, have shown little willingness to review these cases. A petition for habeas corpus usually requires new factual evidence, evidence that an inmate did not receive a fair trial, or some limitation to a criminal statute from the Supreme Court. McCullum’s situation falls somewhere in between, and it remains unclear how he can challenge his incarceration for something that, it turns out, was never actually illegal.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that the government and the court abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or call (432) 687-5157 today.

More Blog Posts:

Fourth Circuit Upholds Sentence in Firearms Case Despite Misstatements of Mandatory Minimum by Prosecutor and Judge at Sentencing – U.S. v. Davis, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 10, 2012
Texas Places Third in Number of Exonerations Over the Past Two Decades, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 29, 2012
Innocence Project Finds That Texas Prosecutorial Misconduct Has Gone Unpunished Since 2004, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 29, 2012

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