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Career Criminal

Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)

The federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is both a poignant and controversial law aimed at deterring and penalizing repeat offenders who commit crimes with firearms.

Established to enhance the punishment of those deemed a continuous threat due to their criminal history, ACCA embodies the federal government's stringent approach towards recidivism and gun violence.

Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)
The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) imposes harsh penalties on repeat offenders.

Suppose you have been convicted of three or more qualifying crimes and are charged with a serious federal crime involving the use of a firearm. In that case, federal prosecutors may invoke ACCA to trigger a sentencing enhancement that, if effective, would guarantee you a minimum prison sentence of 15 years.

The ACCA is a controversial federal law that imposes harsh penalties on repeat offenders convicted of unlawful firearm possession.

It's designed to deter "career criminals," particularly those specializing in violent or serious drug offenses, from further criminal activities by imposing enhanced sentences.

For example, suppose you have at least three prior convictions on federal drug charges or violent felony offenses and are convicted of illegally possessing a firearm. In that case, this law may impose an additional 15 years on your sentence.

In other words, the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. 924(e), requires a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence for recidivists convicted of prohibited possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) that have three prior state or federal convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.

What is the Background of ACCA?

Passed in 1984, the ACCA was enacted in response to growing concerns over crime rates and the circulation of firearms among habitual offenders.

By imposing harsher penalties on individuals with a significant criminal history involving firearms or violence, the passage of ACCA reflects an era where legislative and public sentiment favored stringent measures to combat crime, emphasizing protection over rehabilitation.

Violent felonies have an element of threat, attempt, or use of physical force against somebody involving burglary, arson, or extortion.

18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(b) says, "The term "violent felony" means any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another…"

What Does the Law Say?

The Armed Career Criminal Act, codified at 18 U.S.C. 924(e), is often viewed as the federal version of the "three-strikes" laws enacted by some states, such as California. Although strictly speaking, the sentencing enhancement in this case is triggered with a fourth offense.

Under ACCA, individuals convicted of a federal firearm offense who have three or more prior convictions for certain types of felonies, namely violent felonies or serious drug offenses, are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in federal prison with an implication that sentencing could be extended to life imprisonment.

What are Eligible Felonies?

The felonies that trigger ACCA sentencing enhancements are categorized into two main types: violent felonies and serious drug offenses. Violent felonies include crimes such as:

  • Burglary,
  • Arson,
  • Extortion, and
  • Other crimes involving the use or threat of physical force against another individual.

Serious drug offenses are described as crimes related to the manufacturing, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute controlled substances-specifically, violations of either federal or state drug laws warranting a maximum prison term of ten years.

 Controlled Substances Act

Section 924(e)(2)(a) defines a serious drug offense as "an offense under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801), the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (21 U.S.C. 951), or chapter 705 of title 46 for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law; or

An offense under State law involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance, as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)), for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.

The implications of being sentenced under the ACCA are significant. Suppose you are found guilty under the ACCA. In that case, you face a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in prison without parole.

This is more severe than the penalties for many other types of felonies. The ACCA does not provide for any leniency or exceptions. If you meet the criteria, the minimum sentencing rules apply.

What is the Controversy Surrounding the ACCA?

Despite its intentions, ACCA has been the subject of significant controversy. Critics argue that the law's broad definitions of "violent felonies" and "serious drug offenses" have led to disproportionately harsh sentences for crimes that might not warrant such severe penalties.

Additionally, there are concerns about the ACCA exacerbating racial disparities within the criminal justice system, as minorities are disproportionately affected by its mandates.

One point of contention is the "residual clause" in ACCA, which states that sentencing enhancements may apply to conduct that "presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

Owing to the vagueness of this clause and the risk of prosecutors exploiting it unfairly to procure enhanced sentencing, the Supreme Court struck down this part of the law as "unconstitutionally vague" in the court case Johnson v. United States (2015).

What are the Defense Strategies?

Given the severe implications of an ACCA enhancement, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney will employ one or more key defense strategies to avert the triggering of the enhancement. Common methods used may include:

  • Challenging Predicate Offenses: This approach involves scrutinizing the defendant's prior convictions to verify if they genuinely meet the ACCA's criteria for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Legal arguments can be made that previous crimes do not qualify under the strict definitions outlined by the ACCA, potentially avoiding enhanced sentencing. For example, some burglaries or drug offenses may not be eligible under the narrowed definitions post-Johnson.
  • Plea Negotiations: In some cases, negotiating a plea deal that avoids triggering the ACCA's mandatory minimum sentences may be possible. Skilled negotiation can result in charges or facts being adjusted in a manner that does not invoke the ACCA's harsh penalties.
  • Mitigating Factors: Even when the ACCA applies, efforts can be made to mitigate the sentence by presenting compelling arguments or evidence that warrant leniency. Factors such as the defendant's background, rehabilitation efforts, and the specifics of the current offense can be highlighted to argue for a more measured sentencing outcome.
  • Constitutional Challenges: The defense can argue that applying the ACCA enhancement in specific cases may violate constitutional rights, particularly under the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment or the Fifth Amendment due to vagueness.
  • Procedural Defects: The attorney may investigate whether proper procedures were followed to identify prior convictions. If the evidence was insufficient or improperly presented, it could be grounds to exclude a sentence from ACCA consideration.

Contact our federal criminal defense law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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