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May 4, 2010

Lengthy split Seventh Circuit panel ruling on ACCA and juve predicates

A split Seventh Circuit panel has an interesting (and quite lengthy) discussion of proper application of the Armed Career Criminal Act and of use of juvenile prior to trigger ACCA's increased sentenced.  The majority opinion in Welch v. US, No. 08-3108 (7th Cir. May 4, 2010) (available here), gets started this way:

In 2005, Devin Welch pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He then brought a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his sentence. The district court denied the § 2255 motion in pertinent part. We granted a certificate of appealability to address two of Mr. Welch’s contentions. First, he submits that his prior conviction for the Illinois crime of aggravated fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer cannot qualify as a “violent felony” within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”).  Second, he submits that his prior juvenile adjudication cannot be used to enhance his sentence beyond the statutory maximum because it was not obtained by a jury trial. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

A forceful dissent authored by Judge Posner assails the majority's conclusions on both grounds, and it includes an especially interesting discussion of Apprendi prior conviction issues.  Here is how that discussion concludes:

Of particular relevance to Apprendi, the literature finds that judges are more likely to convict in juvenile cases than juries are.  They are exposed to inadmissible evidence; they hear the same stories from defendants over and over again, leading them to treat defendants’ testimony with skepticism; they become chummy with the police and apply a lower standard of scrutiny to the testimony of officers whom they have come to trust; and they make their decisions alone rather than as a group and so their decisions lack the benefits of group deliberation.  It would be hasty to conclude that juvenile court judges are more prone to convict the innocent than juries are.  But if it is true that juvenile defendants fare worse before judges than they would before juries — if there is reason to think that trial by jury would alter the outcomes in a nontrivial proportion of juvenile cases — one cannot fob off the Apprendi argument with the observation that a jury makes no difference.

Only the Supreme Court can decide authoritatively what its decisions mean.  But the government’s inability to give a reasoned basis for that position is telling, and the better view, I believe, is that a juvenile court “conviction” is not usable for enhancing a federal sentence.

May 4, 2010 at 03:58 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"...judges are more likely to (buy whatever the Blue Team is selling). They are exposed to inadmissible evidence; they hear the same stories from defendants over and over again, leading them to treat defendants’ testimony with skepticism; they become chummy with the police and apply a lower standard of scrutiny to the testimony of officers..."

Exactly. But I wouldn't limit the application of Judge Posner's remarks to juvenile courts.

Posted by: John K | May 5, 2010 11:15:15 AM

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