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Simultaneous concurrent sentences remain distinct

Where the defendant was sentenced to 26 months’ imprisonment for a drug conviction, which he served while also serving five other concurrent sentences, the concurrent sentences remain separate and distinct terms of imprisonment even though they are served simultaneously.


Travis Ryan Skaggs appeals his 180-month sentence for a controlled-substance offense. In imposing that sentence, the district court applied an enhancement based on a prior conviction for a “serious drug felony,” defined by the First Step Act to include only those offenses for which a defendant has “served a term of imprisonment of more than 12 months.” According to Skaggs, his 26-month sentence for the prior offense at issue does not qualify under this provision because he served it concurrently with five other sentences of equal length.


Skaggs concedes, as he must, that he was sentenced to 26 months’ imprisonment for his drug-distribution conviction. But because he served that sentence while also serving five other concurrent sentences, Skaggs contends, no sentence of more than 12 months attached specifically to his drug-distribution conviction. He argues that his “single term of imprisonment” of 26 months should be divided by the six offenses for which he was simultaneously and concurrently sentenced, so that he would have served only 131.67 days — well under the requisite 12 months — for his drug-distribution offense.

Like the district court, this court disagrees. Skaggs’s novel theory cannot be reconciled with fundamental tenets of sentencing law, under which concurrent sentences remain separate and distinct terms of imprisonment even though they are served simultaneously. That is clear from the federal statute authorizing concurrent sentences, described as “[m]ultiple terms of imprisonment imposed at the same time,” and not the single, aggregate term of imprisonment hypothesized by Skaggs. The common meaning of the term “concurrent sentence” — “[t]wo or more sentences of jail time to be served simultaneously” — is to the same effect. Skaggs was sentenced, in other words, not to one undifferentiated 26-month prison term covering six offenses, but to six separate 26-month terms — served simultaneously, to be sure, but each served in its entirety.

Judicial decisions reflect this common-sense understanding. One other court of appeals has considered a claim similar to Skaggs’s — that two sentences of over 12 months did not qualify as two separate “serious drug felon[ies]” because they were served concurrently – and rejected it, holding that “concurrent sentences are separate and distinct sentences” which “require[], by law, multiple terms.”

This court’s case law, though it has not addressed this question directly, is consistent: In determining whether multiple prior convictions should be treated as one predicate or more for purposes of § 841(b)(1)’s enhancements, this court has considered only whether those prior convictions “arose from a single act of criminality” and not whether the defendant served concurrent sentences for them.

Moreover, as the government explains, the concurrent sentence doctrine — which this court has adopted expressly and apply routinely — rests squarely on the premise that concurrent sentences, though served simultaneously, remain separate and discrete. Under that doctrine, this court may decline to review a sentencing claim “where the challenged sentence runs concurrently with a valid sentence of an equal or greater duration,” so that even a successful appeal would have no effect on a defendant’s actual prison term.

But if concurrent sentences merged into a single and unified term of imprisonment, as Skaggs would have it, then this doctrine would make no sense, because a reversal on one concurrent prison term would affect the whole sentence — perhaps, as Skaggs suggests, leading to a pro rata reduction for the percentage of the term allotted to the invalid sentence. The concurrent sentence doctrine is sustainable, in other words, because and only because concurrent terms of imprisonment remain independent of each other. The two arguments made by Skaggs do not persuade the court otherwise.


United States v. Skaggs, Case No. 20-4303, Jan. 18, 2022. 4th Cir. (Harris), from WDVA at Big Stone Gap (Jones). Dana Roger Cormier for Appellant. Jennifer R. Bockhorst for Appellee. VLW 022-2-011. 10 pp.

VLW 022-2-011

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