Supreme Court considers mandatory minimum sentences under 3-strikes gun law

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The Supreme Court considered during a hearing whether a judge or a jury gets to decide whether criminal defendants’ prior convictions justify enhanced sentencing under a federal three-strikes gun law.

The court heard oral arguments on March 27 in Erlinger v. United States.

In the case, the court is expected to decide whether the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires juries to go through fact-based inquiries to figure out whether a defendant has committed multiple prior offenses on separate occasions and therefore qualifies for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) of 1984.

According to the ACCA, anyone with at least three prior violent felonies or serious drug-related convictions is to be sentenced to prison for at least 15 years if found in possession of a firearm.

During oral arguments, the justices and lawyers discussed how a rule mandating that juries, instead of judges, make habitual offender determinations that bring enhanced sentences would actually work.

The ACCA states that a mandatory minimum sentence should be imposed when a defendant has three prior qualifying convictions that were “committed on occasions different from one another.”

The often-litigated ACCA was enacted in response to concerns that a small number of repeat offenders commit a disproportionate number of offenses. Certain provisions of the law have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The statute requires that a 15-year minimum sentence be imposed on people found guilty of illegally possessing a firearm who have three or more prior convictions for a violent felony, such as burglary, committed on different occasions.

A violent felony is defined by the statute as one that necessarily involves “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

In 1991, petitioner Paul Erlinger, who was 18, entered guilty pleas to four counts of burglary arising out of events that took place in the same week in Dubois County, Indiana.

In 2017, Mr. Erlinger was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, contrary to federal law, and prosecutors cited the four burglary convictions.

He pleaded guilty and under the mandatory minimum provisions of the ACCA was sentenced to 15 years in prison to be followed by one year of supervised release.

But in July 2021, a district court granted his motion to vacate the sentence because three of the four offenses that he was previously convicted of no longer qualified under the ACCA.

At the resentencing, prosecutors had asked for him to be sentenced again under the ACCA, based on the prior convictions, but Mr. Erlinger objected, arguing that the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Wooden v. United States changed the complexion of the case.

In Wooden, the court ruled unanimously that William Dale Wooden didn’t deserve a nearly 16-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm because his 10 prior burglary convictions arising from a single criminal episode shouldn’t count as multiple convictions under the ACCA.

Mr. Wooden had been convicted in 1991 of breaking through the drywall dividing storage areas in a storage complex and stealing from a total of 10 units.

Mr. Erlinger said in his petition that Mr. Wooden’s burglary convictions didn’t arise from different occasions because they were all committed in the same city, were charged on the same day, produced concurrent sentences, and weren’t separated by intervening arrests.

The Supreme Court also held in 2013 in Alleyne v. United States that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury requires that any fact that augments a mandatory minimum sentence must be decided by a jury, not a judge.

Mr. Erlinger argued that the district court in his own case couldn’t make a determination about his prior convictions because judges are “absolutely barred by the Sixth Amendment” from fact-finding. The decision of whether the prior convictions warrant enhanced sentencing under the ACCA has to be handled by a jury, he said.

The Wooden ruling left the issue undecided, and both Mr. Erlinger and the Biden administration agree that the Supreme Court should clarify the issue.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a brief in the Erlinger case that some lower courts aren’t following established legal precedents.

“[Recent] developments make clear that this Court’s intervention is necessary to ensure that the circuits correctly recognize defendants’ constitutional rights in this context,” the department argued in a brief.

At oral arguments, Mr. Erlinger’s attorney, Jeffrey L. Fisher, said a judge may not increase a defendant’s sentencing range “based on offense-related conduct that the prior jury did not need to find.”

The Wooden ruling on the ACCA “requires exactly that kind of factual inquiry.”

“The whole point of the [relevant] clause, in fact, is to require something more than just three convictions before an ACCA sentence is imposed,” Mr. Fisher said.

Justice Elena Kagan told D. Nick Harper, an attorney the Supreme Court appointed to defend the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s decision, that the case is complicated and that there is “tension” between several of the court’s prior decisions.

Justice Samuel Alito told Mr. Fisher that it would be difficult for a jury to decide whether a defendant qualifies for ACCA relief because the inquiry would be focused on a “multidimensional and nuanced” examination of the defendant’s previous convictions.

Mr. Fisher said there are fewer than 200 ACCA cases each year and that most of those end in plea bargains.

“Just to move the fact-finding from the judge over to the jury, I don’t think it’s very much to ask,” he said.

Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Eric J. Feigin told Chief Justice John Roberts that allowing a jury to decide the qualification issue under the ACCA would place a burden on prosecutors but would be “manageable.”

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by June.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared March 28, 2024, in The Epoch Times.