The impact of prior state convictions on federal sentencing – II

When someone is charged with a federal weapons offense and has three prior criminal convictions, they could be subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)).

Because of the potentially harsh consequences of the ACCA on federal pleas and sentencing, criminal defense lawyers practicing in state courts need to be aware of the law and work to shield their clients from its future application.

Attorneys Elizabeth Brandenburg and Marcia G. Shein of the Law Office of Marcia G. Shein, P.C. and the Federal Criminal Law Center recently wrote an article detailing what state-level criminal defense lawyers need to understand in order to protect their clients from unduly harsh federal sentences should they later be accused of a federal crime.

In part I of this two-part series, we discussed the application of the ACCA generally. In this part, we will discuss two key Supreme Court rulings on the ACCA and how they should affect a state criminal defense lawyer’s thinking.

What constitutes a violent felony? How do courts know the offenses took place on different occasions?

When it comes to the application of the ACCA, the two most important questions are 1) whether the defendant’s prior convictions are legitimately classified as “violent felonies” or “serious drug offenses,” and 2) whether the crimes in question took place on “occasions different from one another.”

Johnson v. United States and United States v. Sneed are two key Supreme Court rulings that provide guidance into how those questions will be answered.

In Johnson, the Court ruled in favor of a defendant who had a prior Florida conviction for felony battery. The Florida statute encompasses behavior ranging from violent battery to merely touching someone without their consent, and the record was not clear on the level of violence in Mr. Johnson’s case. The Court ruled that since the statute included non-violent behavior, Johnson could not be assumed guilty of a violent felony for the purposes of the ACCA. The vagueness of the record worked in the client’s favor, and state criminal defense attorneys should keep that in mind when handling state cases.

In U.S. v. Sneed, the question was whether the defendant’s prior drug convictions arose from the same event or “occasions different from one another.” A lack of clarity in the record also worked in this defendant’s favor. All three counts had been charged on a single indictment, which did not specify dates or times.

Prosecutors attempted to submit police reports as evidence that the occasions had been separate, but the Court rejected the evidence on Sixth Amendment grounds. Since no other evidence was submitted to prove the crimes were separate, Mr. Sneed could not be sentenced under the ACCA.

A wise state criminal defense lawyer should consider whether their own client would benefit from specific facts being included in the record, as even slight differences in the time and place of the offenses can distinguish them for a future federal court. Also, multiple charges resolved at different times can work against the defendant; consolidation of the charges is more favorable. In most cases, a slimmer record as to the nature and timing of the events is best to protect the defendant from future application of the ACCA.

For a more specific discussion, please see attorneys Brandenburg and Shein’s article at the link below.

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