United States v. Tyrius Eugene Smith (4th Cir. September 2019)

The Federal Docket

October 17, 2019

Firearm Offenses/§ 922(g) – The defendant was not a “convicted felon” under § 922(g) based on receiving a prior “conditional discharge” in North Carolina, despite violating the conditions of that discharge, because the state court had not entered a judgment of conviction when he possessed the firearms in question.

The only question in this appeal from Tyrius Smith’s conviction for possession of a firearm by a conviction felon was whether Smith was actually a “convicted felon” under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) given his prior guilty plea to a felony offense in North Carolina for which he received a “conditional discharge.”

Under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20), whether a defendant has been convicted of a felony is determined by reference to the laws of the jurisdiction where the offense is prosecuted, in this case North Carolina state law. After pleading guilty to felony larceny, Smith had received a “conditional discharge.” Under North Carolina law, a “conditional discharge” allows the state court to defer proceedings “without entering a judgment of guilt” and dismiss the charges against the defendant if the defendant successfully completes a term of probation. If a defendant violates the terms of their probation, the court can revoke the discharge, enter an “adjudication of guilt,” and impose a sentence.

What made Smith’s case a little more complicated was that he did violate the terms of his conditional discharge probation, twice, by possessing firearms. Notably, however, the state court judge had not yet revoked his conditional discharge and entered a judgment of conviction when Smith was indicted in federal court for violating § 922(g). Nonetheless, the district court held that Smith’s conditional discharge under North Carolina law was a conviction under § 922(g).

On appeal, the Court reversed. Since the state court had not yet revoked his conditional discharge for his probation violations, Smith was not a convicted felon at the time that he possessed the firearms. The Court looked to North Carolina law prohibiting the possession of firearms by convicted felons, under which a conviction is defined as a “final judgment” in any case involving a felony. By definition, Smith’s conditional discharge was imposed “without entering a judgment of guilt.”

From the Western District of North Carolina

Opinion by Richardson, joined by Motz and Wynn

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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