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Pretrial Release Crime Penalties Can Exceed Statutory Maximums

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Federal law mandates sentence enhancements for defendants convicted of crimes while on pretrial release from other federal charges.

In a case of first impression, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals this week considered whether the sentence enhancement law allows a district court to impose a sentence that exceeds the statutory maximum for the underlying crime.

Melvin Lewis was charged with one count of carjacking, one count of possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, and one count of committing an offense while on pretrial release. A jury convicted Lewis of ammunition possession and committing an offense while on pretrial release.

The statutory maximum sentence for possession of ammunition by a felon is 10 years. The sentence enhancement maximum for a pretrial release felony is also 10 years. Thus, if the sentence enhancement law is read to permit an additional 10 years to be added to a sentence, Lewis could have received a sentence of up to 20 years for the underlying crime, notwithstanding its 10 year statutory maximum sentence.

The district court, sentenced Lewis to 138 months (11.5 years). Lewis appealed, arguing plain error because the sentence exceeded the 10 year statutory maximum for the underlying crime, and treated the sentencing enhancement qualifier, (the charge of committing an offense while on pretrial release), as a separate offense in itself.

While the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that convicting Lewis for the "crime" of committing a crime on pretrial release was plainly erroneous, (not to mention redundant), the court found that the 138-month sentence was properly imposed.

The Third Circuit ruled that sentence enhancement law unambiguously permits increases to the maximum sentence allowed by statute for the underlying offense because it requires the sentencing judge to add a sentence of up to 10 years "in addition to the sentence prescribed for the offense."

Looking to the legislative intent behind the law, the court noted that Congress would not have written "in addition to the sentence prescribed" if it really meant that the sentence enhancement should instead be imposed as a portion of the sentence of the underlying crime.

Furthermore, by specifying in the statute that the sentence "shall be consecutive to any other sentence of imprisonment," Congress intended for the sentencing court to impose an extra sentence on top of the one imposed for the underlying offense.

While this is bad news for repeat offenders who can't stay out of trouble during pretrial release, the sentence enhancement clarification should help lawyers prepare their clients for the possibility that their sentences could exceed statutory maximums.

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