Justices allow extra penalty for persistent recidivists

May 24, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, ruling in a Baltimore prison inmate's case, issued a broad new declaration yesterday allowing extra punishment for repeat criminals who commit yet another crime, even if some of the prior convictions may have been invalid.

In a decision that may affect the new "three-time loser" approach that is gaining wide popularity in Congress and state legislatures, the court split 6-3 in upholding a 19-year, seven-month sentence for Darren J. Custis, 29, of Baltimore.

Under the three-time-loser proposal, someone convicted of a third violent crime is sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole. Custis was sentenced under a somewhat similar stiffer-sentence law for "career criminals."

He was sentenced two years ago by U.S. District Judge Frederic Smalkin of Baltimore after his conviction for being a convicted felon who possessed a gun. Because Custis had three earlier criminal convictions, the federal Armed Career Criminal Act required a longer sentence for the gun crime.

Two of his prior convictions were for crimes in Maryland; one was for a crime in Pennsylvania. When he was facing sentencing for the federal gun crime, Custis protested that the two Maryland convictions were unconstitutional -- one, because his lawyer was ineffective, the other because he had been forced to admit guilt. Judge Smalkin, however, would not allow him to make that challenge.

The federal gun prosecution, and a charge for cocaine possession, came after Custis was caught in "Operation Triggerlock" -- a federal effort, joined by Baltimore police, to crack down on gun use by convicted felons.

Custis was arrested in July 1991 by city police in a convenience store, the Springhill Market, in an area known as a site of drug dealing: the intersection of Springhill and Towanda avenues.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, ruled that the Constitution does not give a person the right to challenge an enhanced sentence as a career criminal by arguing that prior convictions were unconstitutional -- unless that person had no lawyer at all in the earlier cases.

Any other constitutional defect in those prior cases, the Rehnquist opinion said, could not be cited as a reason for challenging the stiffer sentence.

The opinion noted, however, that Custis still may have some remedies in state or federal court, if he pursues a separate challenge to the Maryland convictions. If he gets the earlier convictions overturned, he could try again to get his federal sentence reduced. Custis is now at the federal prison camp in Lewisburg, Pa.

Federal Public Defender James K. Bredar in Baltimore called this "a curious opinion" that will increase the number of challenges to repeat-offender sentences. He said those covered by the law "now must file additional lawsuits" -- an expansion of the kind of litigation that he said the Supreme Court had been resisting in other areas.

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