New opinion: Pa. sentence for loitering isn’t a sentence for loitering

U.S. v. James—criminal—affirmance—Fisher

Note: this opinion issued yesterday.

A man was convicted of possessing a firearm after a prior felony conviction and sentenced to  over eight years in federal prison. Of that over eight years, at least a year and a half resulted from his prior Pennsylvania misdemeanor conviction for loitering. The main issue on appeal was whether using the loitering conviction to increase his over-eight-year sentence was allowed under the Sentencing Guidelines. The Guidelines provide, “Sentences for the following prior offenses and offenses similar to them, by whatever name they are known, are never counted,” including “Loitering.”

Yesterday, the Third Circuit held that Pa. sentences for loitering aren’t covered by the Guidelines’ exclusion of sentences for loitering or anything similar. The intro explained:

Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the sentences imposed for certain prior offenses, and for “offenses similar to them,” may not be counted in the calculation of an individual’s criminal-history score. U.S.S.G. § 4A1.2(c). One such offense is “[l]oitering.” U.S.S.G. § 4A1.2(c)(2). Yet there is (and has long been) a great variety of loitering provisions in force across the United States, and it is unclear which of those laws impose a sentence excludable under the Guidelines. In United States v.Hines, 628 F.3d 101 (3d Cir. 2010), our Court went some way toward resolving this difficulty. “Loitering” in § 4A1.2(c)(2), we said, covers a class of offenses that we called “loitering simpliciter,” and it does not reach a separate class that we dubbed “loitering plus.” 628 F.3d at 108. We then held that the defendant’s sentence under the New Jersey law at issue— which bars “wander[ing], remain[ing] or prowl[ing] in a public place with the purpose of unlawfully obtaining or distributing a controlled dangerous substance,” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:33- 2.1(b)(1) (2019)—was countable because the offense is a form of loitering plus and, as applied to the defendant, was not sufficiently “similar to” the offenses that constitute loitering simpliciter.

The present appeal asks us to decide this same question for a sentence under Pennsylvania’s anti-loitering statute, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5506 (2019). Because that law is different from the New Jersey provision in important respects, we take this opportunity to clarify our understanding of “[l]oitering” in § 4A1.2(c)(2). We conclude that loitering simpliciter under the Guidelines encompasses all those offenses that do not require, either explicitly or by judicial interpretation, a purpose to engage in some type of unlawful conduct. On this understanding, we hold that the Pennsylvania law neither is a form of loitering simpliciter nor, as applied here, is sufficiently “similar to” the offenses that constitute that category. We accordingly will affirm the judgment of the District Court.

(Footnote omitted.)

Joining Fisher were Shwartz and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.