Youthful Offender Adjudication Counts as Prior for Fed Sentencing

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 25, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When does a crime not count as a conviction, yet counts as a prior felony? When the Feds get involved, of course!

Omari Elliot was convicted of two counts of robbery, plus a count of brandishing a firearm during the crime. What was his sentence? Life, thanks to a pair of prior felony convictions under the career offender enhancement. One of those convictions, however, was a sealed youthful offender adjudication.

Penalties of a Misspent Youth

In 2002, at the tender age of 20, Elliot robbed a man at gunpoint, taking $150 in cash and a pack of cigarettes. Instead of hard time, however, his case was disposed of via a youthful offender adjudication, which does not count as a conviction under Alabama law.

This Ain't Alabama

State law, however, doesn't control for purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines.

The guidelines define a career offender as someone when (1) he was at least 18 years old at the time of the instant offense; (2) the instant offense was a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and (3) he has at least two prior felony convictions.

As for that pesky felony conviction definition, it clearly states, "A conviction for an offense committed at age eighteen or older is an adult conviction." The guidelines also clarify that guilty, guilty pleas, and nolo contendere pleas all count.

So, while Alabama may have labeled him a "youthful offender" or a minor for purposes of that state case, the federal guidelines consider him an adult as of the age of 18. And though the youthful offender adjudication is more of a diversion program than a conviction, per controlling case law, it counts.

The court cites a number of cases where a nolo contendere plea sufficed, before moving on to an even more convincing case: United States v. Acosta, where a New York youthful offender adjudication was counted for purposes of a sentencing enhancement.

It's an interesting, yet problematic holding though, isn't it? Youthful adjudication of cases results in probation and a sealed offense, not a conviction. For young defendants, it removes the incentive to fight the case, yet if they commit further crimes down the line, that missed opportunity to challenge a prior case could lead to a life sentence.

What are your thoughts? Are you troubled by the use of non-convictions as priors for federal sentencing purposes? Tweet us @FindLawLP.

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