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United States v. Polk.

No. 22-5037. 3/13/2023. D.Okla. Judge Moritz. Assimilative Crimes Act—State Law Punishment—Conflict With Federal Sentencing Policy.

March 13, 2023

Polk crashed his pickup truck into two cars while he was intoxicated, seriously injuring two people. The accident occurred on an Indian reservation and Polk is an Indian, so he was charged under the Assimilative Crimes Act (ACA), 18 USC § 13, with an Oklahoma DUI offense that carries a mandatory prison sentence of at least four years and at most 20 years. Polk pleaded guilty to that offense. At sentencing, Polk requested a prison term of less than four years based on Oklahoma’s “safety-valve” law, which allows state court judges to impose a sentence below a statutory mandatory minimum in certain circumstances. The district court sentenced Polk to the four-year mandatory minimum prison term.

On appeal, Polk argued that the district court erred by not applying Oklahoma’s safety-valve law to consider whether he qualified for a departure below the four-year mandatory minimum. He contended that the court erroneously concluded that the Oklahoma safety-valve law conflicts with federal sentencing policy under 18 USC § 3553(e) and (f). The ACA applies where, as here, acts are committed on an Indian reservation that are crimes in the state where the reservation is located but are not otherwise crimes under federal law. The ACA generates a federal offense from the laws of the state where the reservation is located by borrowing the relevant crime from state law and creating a federal offense to fill the gap in the US Code. The ACA does not require federal courts to incorporate every aspect of the state criminal law that may apply to the newly created federal offense; it requires only that courts ensure the defendant receives a punishment similar to the punishment applicable in state court. Under § 3553, federal sentencing judges may depart from a mandatory minimum sentence only when the defendant (1) substantially assists with a criminal investigation or prosecution, or (2) is convicted of certain drug offenses and satisfies the statutory factors under § 3553(e) and (f). However, Oklahoma’s safety-valve law allows departures from mandatory minimums under a broader set of circumstances. Thus, Oklahoma’s safety-valve law conflicts with federal sentencing policy because it would allow a prison term below the mandatory minimum in circumstances other than those exclusively provided for in § 3553(e) and (f). Accordingly, the district court properly concluded that it could not sentence Polk under the Oklahoma safety-valve law.

The sentence was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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