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Prior convictions play controversial role in sentencing

Prior convictions are playing a central and controversial role in the sentencing of a New York man who was convicted on a number of narcotics and robbery charges. The outcome of the man's case could influence the way prior convictions are handled in other federal criminal prosecutions. The controversy has to do with the federal prosecutors' use of 851 enhancements, which tack on time to sentences based on prior convictions. The enhancements are meant to punish repeat offenders, but critics say they're used to bully defendants into guilty pleas.

The 27-year-old New York man was offered 10-year sentence in 2012 in exchange for a guilty plea in his case. Prosecutors allegedly told him that if he didn't accept the deal and was found guilty at trial, they would use 851 enhancements to lengthen his sentence. He was found guilty, and prosecutors used the enhancement to tack on an additional 10 years to his 40-plus year minimum sentence.

Prosecutors subsequently dropped the 851 enhancement. The judge in the case said that he felt the enhancement was unnecessary, but he had little power to do anything about it. Enhancements across the country have come under scrutiny as criminal defense attorneys claim that the government uses the threat of enhancements as intimidation to get defendants to accept plea deals. Eric Holder released a memo to federal prosecutors advising that 851 enhancements shouldn't play a predominant role in the plea negotiation process.

While 851 enhancements may not be commonly known, they can play a big role in sentencing in federal cases. Individuals who have prior convictions and face new federal charges may want to work with a defense attorney who has experience with federal plea negotiations. The attorney will likely know when and how these enhancements can be used and what role they may plan in any possible plea deal or sentencing.

Source: Reuters, "NY case highlights controversy of prior convictions in sentencing", Nate Raymond and Joseph Ax, December 02, 2014

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