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Ninth Circuit: Washington State Accomplice Liability Drug Offenses Not ACCA Predicates

by Mark Wilson

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Washington state’s accomplice liability statute renders the state’s drug trafficking law too broad to serve as an Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) predicate offense. 

The ACCA requires a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for individuals convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm who have three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” “serious drug offense,” or both. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(l). 

Federal courts perform a categorical inquiry into whether a prior state conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate. Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016). The court is required to compare the elements of the statute forming the basis of the defendant’s conviction with the elements of the generic crime, to determine if a prior conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate.  United States v. Jones, 877 F3d 884 (9th Cir. 2017). “If the elements of the state crime are broader than those of the generic crime, there is no categorical match and ... the state crime cannot serve as a predicate conviction under the ACCA.” United States v. Strickland, 860 F.3d 1224 (9th Cir. 2017). 

Under the categorical approach, the Ninth Circuit considers “accomplice liability as an element when comparing the reach of state crimes and generic crimes.” In United States v. Valdivia-Flores, 876 F.3d 1201 (9th Cir. 2017), the Ninth Circuit held that Washington’s accomplice liability law is too broad to allow the state’s drug trafficking law to constitute an “illicit trafficking” offense. Accordingly, it does not constitute an “aggravated felony” under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”). 

In 2013, Eric Quinn Franklin was convicted of several federal drug trafficking offenses and felon in possession of a firearm. The district court imposed a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the ACCA, finding that Franklin had “three previous convictions ... for a ... serious drug offense.” This finding was based upon Franklin’s three Washington state drug convictions under an accomplice liability theory. 

The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that there is no difference between an ACCA “serious drug offense” and the INA’s “illicit trafficking” offense. As such, the Court concluded that its decision in Valdivia-Flores controls Franklin’s case. 

“A conviction under Washington’s accomplice liability statute renders its drug trafficking law broader than generic federal drug trafficking laws under the INA and ... the ACCA,” the Court held. “Washington’s drug trafficking law is thus not categorically a ‘serious drug offense’ under the ACCA.” 

Finding that Franklin’s three Washington state drug convictions could not constitute “serious drug offenses,” the Court concluded that the 15-year ACCA mandatory minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) was inapplicable.  Accordingly, the Court vacated his sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm and remanded for resentencing. See: United States v. Franklin, 904 F.3d 793 (9th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Franklin



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