Supreme Court to Hear Arguments Surrounding Sentencing Rules for Armed Criminals

Sam Dorman
By Sam Dorman
November 26, 2023Supreme Court
Supreme Court to Hear Arguments Surrounding Sentencing Rules for Armed Criminals
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Nov. 13, 2023. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument on Nov. 27 over how courts should sentence criminal defendants under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).

Passed in 1984, the ACCA imposes a 15-year minimum sentence for individuals who are found to illegally possess a firearm while having three violent felony or serious drug offense convictions. A problem has arisen with changing prohibitions on drugs under federal and state law. Two cases are challenging the idea that criminals should receive the 15-year sentence depending on how various laws scheduled certain drugs at particular times in the judicial process.

Jackson v. United States is asking whether the ACCA incorporates federal drug schedules that were active at the time of the initial drug offense or when the defendant violates the ACCA’s prohibition on possession of a firearm. Brown v. United States, meanwhile, is asking whether courts should look at federal drug schedules that were in place when the defendant was being sentenced.

The ACCA’s provisions have created what’s known as a “circuit split,” as multiple courts of appeals have differed on how to determine whether a criminal offense qualifies under the law’s sentencing requirements. Recognizing the conflict in appellate courts, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to take up the case in Jackson v. United States, hold the other, “and then dispose of [the other] as appropriate in light of Jackson.”

U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued that judges should consider a crime a “serious drug offense” if it qualified as such when the defendant committed the crime.

Eugene Jackson pleaded in 2017 to one count of possessing a firearm as a felon. He had five prior convictions—including one for armed robbery, another for battery of a law enforcement officer, and one for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Both the government prosecution and the district court in Mr. Jackson’s case agreed that the battery of a law enforcement officer didn’t qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA’s list of offenses that would merit a 15-year minimum.

The two remaining convictions consisted of one from 1998 for the sale of cocaine and one from 2004 for possession with the intent to sell cocaine. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled, however, in 2022 that those convictions didn’t constitute “serious drug offenses” under ACCA because both Florida and the federal government had removed a particular type of cocaine, ioflupane, from their controlled substances schedules before Mr. Jackson possessed the firearm in 2017.

In its opinion, the court explained that it analyzed Mr. Jackson’s convictions with the “categorical approach,” which the United States Sentencing Commission described as “the method for determining whether an offense (generally a prior conviction) fits within a given definition … To do so, the court must compare the elements of the prior offense to the relevant definition.”

“Under the categorical approach, courts are not permitted to look to the conduct underlying the prior the conviction, only to the statute of conviction, to determine the elements of the prior offense.”

The other case involves a man named Justin Brown, who argued that ACCA shouldn’t apply to his state conviction for possession of marijuana because the federal government, by contrast, effectively decriminalized hemp through the Agriculture Improvement Act. Because hemp was removed from the federal ban on marijuana, it presented a narrower definition of the drug when compared to the state law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that courts should sentence based on the version of federal law active when the felon violated the ACCA, or was found to be in possession of a firearm. On the other hand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said that courts should apply the version of federal law in place when the defendant undergoes sentencing for violating the ACCA.

From The Epoch Times

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