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United States v. Smith

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

September 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
TYRIUS EUGENE SMITH, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: May 8, 2019

          United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, at Asheville. Martin K. Reidinger, District Judge. (1:17-cr-00098-MR-DLH-1).

         ARGUED:

          Ann Loraine Hester, FEDERAL DEFENDERS OF WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, INC., Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Anthony Joseph Enright, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Anthony Martinez, Federal Public Defender, FEDERAL DEFENDERS OF WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, INC., Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          R. Andrew Murray, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before MOTZ, WYNN, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

          Richardson, Circuit Judge.

         Tyrius Smith was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). While there is no doubt that he possessed a firearm, we must decide whether he was a felon under federal law. Answering that question is surprisingly difficult. Federal law treats someone as a felon if "convicted" of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). But what exactly counts as a "conviction"? In some cases the answer seems easy-for example, where a federal judge imposes a sentence after a jury has found the defendant guilty. In other cases it is hard; this is one of them. Smith's only alleged conviction is a North Carolina larceny offense where the state-court judge imposed a "conditional discharge, " as provided for by state statute, after a plea. So we must determine whether a conditional-discharge plea is a "conviction." And by statute, we must follow North Carolina law in making that determination. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20).

         The district court found that, under North Carolina law, a plea of guilty followed by conditional-discharge probation is a conviction. We disagree and conclude that the North Carolina Supreme Court, if faced with the question before us, would hold that a conditional-discharge plea is not a conviction for purposes of §§ 921 and 922. So Smith was not a felon, and his federal felon-in-possession conviction must be reversed.

         I.

         In 2016, Smith pleaded guilty to Larceny by Employee, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-74, a state-law felony punishable by imprisonment for between four and twenty-five months, id. at § 15A-1340.17. The judge, under statutory authority and with the consent of the prosecutor, imposed a "conditional discharge." This meant that "without entering a judgment of guilt, " the court "defer[ed] further proceedings and place[d] the person on probation . . . for the purpose of allowing the defendant to demonstrate the defendant's good conduct." Id. at ยง 15A-1341(a4). If Smith fulfilled the probation conditions imposed, then "any plea or finding of guilty previously entered shall be withdrawn and the court shall discharge the person and dismiss the proceedings against the ...


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