U.S. Supreme Court Throws Out California "Career Criminal" Sentence

The Armed Career Criminal Act allows federal judges to impose higher sentences on some repeat offenders who are convicted of firearms crimes. Under the ACCA, judges can impose enhanced sentences when a person has been convicted of three or more violent felonies or serious drug crimes.

However, while the ACCA is a federal law, most of the qualifying crimes are defined by state law. This can lead to significant confusion when it comes to determining how the law will be applied.

Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States addressed this issue in a case involving a California man who was sentenced as an armed career criminal based on an earlier burglary conviction.

When Is Burglary A Violent Crime?

The man was convicted in 2008 on a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Normally, that offense would carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison with no mandatory minimum. However, because the man was deemed a violent career criminal, he was sentenced to 262 months in prison — nearly 22 years, and more than twice as much as the maximum sentence he would have faced had he not been sentenced under the ACA.

The decision to sentence the man under the ACA was based, in part, on a 1978 burglary conviction. Burglary is included on the list of violent felonies that can qualify a person for sentencing under the ACA, because most states define burglary as involving an unlawful or unprivileged entry into a structure for the purposes of committing a crime.

However, the California law under which the man was convicted did not define burglary in the same way. It said a person committed burglary whenever he or she entered a building with the intent of committing a crime. There was no requirement for forced or unlawful entry. Even shoplifting could be defined as burglary under the law. Based on this difference, the man challenged his ACA sentencing on the grounds he was not actually convicted of a violent crime.

The Supreme Court agreed. In doing so, it held that federal judges should rely only on the statutory elements of a crime when deciding how to sentence an offender. Judges should not engage in their own findings of fact by combing through an offender's record to draw assumptions about past crimes, since doing so can violate a person's right to have factual issues decided by a jury.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court threw out the California man's sentence and remanded his case back to a lower court for resentencing.

Working With An experienced attorney

The case highlights the importance of working with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you are charged with a federal crime. An experienced attorney will be able to understand the interplay between state and federal criminal laws and can raise the appropriate challenges when laws are being interpreted unjustly.