Career Offender Status in Federal Criminal Law

What is a “career offender”?

A “career offender” is a special designation used within § 4B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines for certain convicted defendants.

In order to be a “career offender,” the defendant must:

  • be at least 18 years old at the time he or she committed the offense of conviction;
  • be convicted of a felony drug crime or a felony crime of violence; and
  • have two prior felony drug or crime of violence convictions.

What happens if someone is a “career offender”? 

When a person is deemed a “career offender” under the guidelines, the applicable guidelines range is (usually) higher for that person, which often results in a higher sentence.

The guidelines achieve this in two ways.  First, it sets a minimum offense level that is usually far higher than what the defendant would have otherwise received based on the normal application of the guidelines.  Second, it automatically places the defendant in criminal history category VI, regardless of his or her actual criminal history.  The net result of these two adjustments is that the defendant’s recommended guidelines range will be near the maximum penalty for the crime of conviction.

Because the “career offender” designation only affects the defendant’s guidelines range, the judge has discretion to disregard or at least discount the importance of that designation.  In fact, judges do frequently impose lower sentences on defendants who are deemed “career offenders” than what the guidelines recommends.  Often, this requires the defense attorney to persuade the judge that the designation does not adequately reflect the defendant’s criminal history.

How do I challenge a “career offender” designation under the sentencing guidelines?

As noted earlier, in order to be a career offender, a defendant must have two (or more) prior convictions for felony drug crimes or felony crimes of violence.  Although simple at first glance, there are some nuances and exceptions to this definition such that even defendants with lengthy criminal histories sometimes may not qualify as career offenders under the guidelines.

First, prior convictions that are too far back in time are not counted for purposes of determining whether or not someone is a career offender.  The rules for determining which prior convictions count, however, are complex and convoluted.  Often, it is necessary to have an experienced attorney review the record of prior convictions to determine whether someone is or is not a career offender.

Second, the definition for a crime of violence under the sentencing guidelines is similar to the definition for crime violence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which the Supreme Court has held in Johnson to be unconstitutionally vague.  Thus, there may certain crimes that no longer qualify as crimes of violence, or where an attorney may assert the argument that the crime does not qualify as a crime of violence, in light of the Johnson decision.   Learn more about how Johnson impacted the definition for crime of violence.

If you or someone you know is faced with the prospect of being designated as a career offender in a federal criminal case, you can contact one of our experienced federal criminal defense attorneys today for a free phone consultation.