U.S. Supreme Court Hears Case That May Impact California Defendants Sentenced Under the ACCA

The Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA, the “Act”) is a federal law that provides mandatory sentences for those convicted of possessing a gun after having previously been convicted of a violent felony offense. The ACCA was passed back in 1984, when gun violence was plaguing the country. Federal prosecutors in California regularly use the ACCA to obtain hefty sentences against defendants, even when the prior felony offenses occurred long in the past. Often, prosecutors will use a defendant’s potential exposure under the ACCA to coerce them into accepting a plea deal.

However, since the passage of the ACCA, courts across the country have been inundated with cases, asking them to flesh out the details of what constitutes a “predicate offense” under the Act. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that every state defines its criminal laws differently, and what may be commonly considered a “violent felony,” may not have actually involved any allegations of violence. The specific definition of a “violent felony,” under the ACCA is any crime that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a case in which the defendant was charged under the ACCA. Evidently, the defendant was arrested after police found a gun in his car during a traffic top. The defendant pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession, and proceeded to sentencing. At sentencing, the prosecution claimed that the ACCA should apply, because the defendant was previously convicted of several “violent felonies” in Tennessee.

However, the defendant objected to the characterization of one of those crimes—a conviction for “reckless aggravated assault.” The defendant argued that, to qualify as a predicate offense, a crime must involve more than a “reckless” mindset. Here, the defendant’s Tennessee conviction for reckless aggravated assault, only required the prosecution to prove he acted recklessly. Thus, the defendant argued that it should not count as a predicate offense under the ACCA.

Both the trial court, as well as the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected the defendant’s argument. He then appealed his sentence up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In November of last year, the Court heard oral argument, and is expected to issue an opinion in the case at some point this year.

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