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No enhanced sentencing for felony DWI

DENVER - A Navajo man's firearm possession sentence will not be lengthened because of prior drunken driving convictions; instead, his 15-year sentence will be vacated, a federal appellate court said June 16, instructing a lower court in New Mexico to resentence him.

Larry Begay, of Vanderwagen, N.M., had appealed his sentence, enhanced under the Armed Career Criminal Act, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed lower court rulings April 16 and sent the case back to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Before his firearm sentencing, Begay had three felony DWI convictions which the lower courts deemed ''violent felonies'' under the act, customarily applied to burglary, extortion, arson or crimes involving explosives.

Begay had pleaded guilty in federal court in New Mexico to possessing a firearm illegally, because of his three prior felonies. He was accused of threatening family members with an unloaded rifle while intoxicated.

By removing sentence enhan-cement from Begay's penalty, his sentence would probably be in the four-year range rather than 15 years, attorneys said.

Both the appellate court and the Supreme Court have been divided over whether felony DWI convictions constitute ''violent felonies'' under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

DWI ''creates a completely different kind of risk than the confrontational risk the active, violent'' offenses create, the Supreme Court ruled.

In accepting Begay's appeal, the high court said the status of felony DWI as a ''violent felony'' for sentencing purposes is an ''important question of federal law'' that should be settled.

If felony DWI were to fall under the act, there would be a ''dramatic increase'' of at least five years in sentences, impacting ''a significant and growing number of defendants.''

The court noted that about 1.4 million people were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in 2003.