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ACCA with tougher punishment for career criminals

Supreme Court Weighs How to Define Violent Felonies for ACCA

Congress passed the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) in 1984, aiming to bring longer sentences to violent career criminals. Under the ACCA, federal defendants facing firearms possession charges can get much longer sentences if they have previously been convicted of three or more violent felonies or serious drug crimes. The otherwise 10-year maximum penalty for being a felon in possession of a firearm rises to a 15-year minimum and lifetime maximum.

On October 9, the Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases raising issues about what exactly is or isn’t included in the definition of “violent felony.” Variations in state criminal laws often make it necessary for courts to determine whether violating a particular law amounts to committing a violent crime.

In Stokeling v. the United States, a Florida man argued that a prior conviction for suddenly snatching a necklace off a woman’s neck should not count as a violent felony. In that case, the defendant with two previous robbery convictions had pleaded guilty in 2016 to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Prosecutors sought to invoke the ACCA to increase his sentence for the firearms charge. Defendant Stokeling argued his prior conviction didn’t qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA.

The ACCA’s definition of violent felony includes a crime which has as an element “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force” against another person. The federal trial court agreed with Stokeling that ACCA’s definition of a violent felony shouldn’t include an offense which a state appellate court had defined as requiring only slight force to overcome any victim resistance, but the 11th Circuit reversed that decision. The U.S. Department of Justice argued against a Supreme Court review.

Two other combined cases – United States v. Stitt and United States v. Sims – raise the question of what types of burglary qualify for ACCA enhancement. Burglaries are one of a limited number of offenses that ACCA explicitly includes in its definition of violent felony, but the defendants’ convictions in these cases came under Arkansas and Tennessee burglary laws which lower courts saw as significantly broader than how Supreme Court precedent defines that term, and thus not meeting the definition of violent felonies for ACCA purposes.

Though the state laws differ from each other in various ways, both authorize burglary prosecutions not just for breaking into residential structures, but also into mobile homes, trailers, and other non-permanent or moveable structures where people might sleep. Supreme Court precedent (in its 1990 Taylor decision) excluded vehicles from the definition of areas that can be subject to burglary. It was the Justice Department that asked the Supreme Court to review the lower court decisions, which it claimed were wrongly decided.

Perhaps because the arguments came at the start of the second week of the Supreme Court’s new term, or because it was the first argument attended by newly installed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the high court’s oral argument seemed more lighthearted than is normally the case.

At one point, when hearing the Stokeling argument, and discussing how much violence would have to accompany a crime to establish it as violent, Justice Sotomayor asked if it would be enough that she pinched the victim, and mimed pinching Justice Gorsuch, who acted horrified by the suggestion.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonerResource.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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