The impact of prior state convictions on federal sentencing – I

In Georgia and across the United States, criminal defense has become increasingly specialized. Many Georgia criminal defense attorneys don’t handle federal offenses at all, and those who do often focus their practices exclusively on federal cases. This compartmentalization of state and federal criminal defense representation, however, can have grave consequences for the defendant, however, when state and federal criminal laws intersect.

Because attorneys Elizabeth Brandenburg and Marcia G. Shein of the Law Office of Marcia G. Shein, P.C. and the Federal Criminal Law Center do represent clients in both state and federal criminal proceedings, they recently prepared an article detailing one aspect of federal sentencing that can have an unduly harsh effect: The federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).

Public defenders and criminal defense lawyers who practice only in state courts need to be aware of the jurisprudence around the ACCA when negotiating plea agreements. Without proper planning by state criminal defense attorneys, should clients later be accused of federal offenses, the details of their state plea agreement may come back to haunt them.

In this two-part series, we will discuss the application of the ACCA federal sentencing enhancements and what state criminal defense attorneys should do to protect their clients from its potential application in future federal cases.

ACCA imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of three prior violent felonies or serious drug offenses in state courts

In an effort to increase sentences for so-called “violent career offenders,” the ACCA imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) firearm offenses when the defendant has three previous convictions for “violent felonies” or “serious drug offenses” that took place on “occasions different from one another.”

That means that someone charged federally with the relatively minor offense of being a felon in possession of a firearm — even when there are clearly mitigating circumstances — can be sentenced to 15 years in federal prison if they have three prior federal or state convictions meeting those criteria.

The questions most hotly debated when the ACCA is invoked include 1) what constitutes a “violent felony,” and 2) what is meant by “occasions different from one another.”

Two key U.S. Supreme Court cases in this area are Johnson v. United States and United States v. Sneed. Both cases are instructive as to how a state criminal defense attorney’s decisions during earlier state criminal proceedings can impact the application of the ACCA during subsequent federal pleas and sentencing.

In part II of this series, we will discuss the rulings in Johnson v. U.S. and U.S. v. Sneed, along with practical steps state criminal defense lawyers can take to protect their clients should they later be accused of federal weapons offenses. Visit this blog again to learn more, or subscribe to our RSS feed to receive automatic updates.

Source: “Preventing the Severe Consequences of Prior State Convictions on Federal Sentences,” Elizabeth Brandenburg and Marcia G. Shein, March 2010