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June 23, 2014

Another account of how ACCA interpretation aggravation endures, this time in Maryland

Sentencing fanatics know full well the multi-dimensional jurisprudential mess that is application of the Armed Career Criminal Act in federal courts, and this lengthy Baltimore Sun article details how crabby these ACCA problems have become in Maryland. (Hat tip: How Appealing.)  The piece is headlined "Sentences challenged for Maryland prisoners deemed to have violent pasts: Supreme Court ruling triggers wide-ranging review in dozens of cases," and here are excerpts:

A little-noticed and highly technical Supreme Court decision is opening the way for dozens of federal inmates from Maryland to seek reduced sentences — even though trial judges found they had violent criminal pasts.  For some, the high court decision has already meant that sentences of 15 years and more have been cut substantially.  One inmate, for example, saw his sentence reduced from 15 years to about six years; he was released in February....

Prosecutors, including Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, said lengthy sentences are necessary to rid the streets of violent offenders who continue to carry guns or commit other crimes.  "Defendants who indisputably committed violent crimes will get a break as result of this opinion," he said.

But advocates for the inmates say such sentences, which take certain previous convictions into account, are used indiscriminately and undermine the judiciary's role in crafting fair punishments.  "The petitions I've filed are going to undo the unjust incarceration of lots of people who should never have gotten these mandatory sentences," said Paresh S. Patel, an appeals attorney at the federal public defender's office. The office has filed challenges on behalf of 55 inmates and plans to pursue 13 more.

The petitions follow a 2013 Supreme Court decision that tweaked the way federal judges evaluate a defendant's criminal history when setting sentences in certain cases. Subsequent lower court decisions opened the way to the wave of challenges in Maryland....

A Reagan-era federal law called the Armed Career Criminal Act turns the 10-year maximum penalty for a felon ... possessing a gun or ammunition into a 15-year minimum for anyone previously convicted of three or more "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses."  But determining which state laws should be included in those categories has continually vexed the courts.  

The Supreme Court case dealt with California's burglary statute, which covers everything from shoplifting to a violent break-in.  Federal judges had previously looked at the details of some prior convictions to determine whether an offender should be considered violent.... But the Supreme Court said that approach by judges is unreliable.  "The meaning of those documents will often be uncertain," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "And the statements of fact in them may be downright wrong."

Instead, Kagan wrote, sentencing judges should only consider whether the barest elements of the crime — those that prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt — make the offense necessarily violent.  According to the high court, California's burglary law did not qualify.  Neither did Maryland's second-degree assault statute, which covers everything from unwanted touching to a violent beating, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled later.

In the aftermath of that ruling, at least one inmate convicted in Maryland, Ronald Hamby, has already been released....  He was convicted on a federal gun charge in 2007 and, because he had three prior second-degree assaults on his record, received a 15-year sentence.

Judge William D. Quarles Jr. said at Hamby's sentencing that he regretted the term he had to impose.  He added, "Mr. Hamby, sentencing is never a pleasure for a judge, and there are some things that make it considerably less pleasant, such as sending a 26-year-old person away for 15 years."

Attorney Joseph L. Evans, who defended Hamby at trial, said in a recent interview that his client was not the kind of person the law was intended to target.  Evans said the assaults "weren't stranger-on-stranger incidents. It wasn't like some sort of gang activity, or drug-related activity.  It was youngish guys acting out in stupid ways that violated the law." After the Supreme Court ruling, Hamby challenged his 15-year sentence and was resentenced to the time he had already served in prison plus two weeks.  He was released from federal custody in February.

Patel said the federal public defender's office is seeking to revise sentences in gun cases as well as others in which defendants were marked as career offenders.

While all the cases in dispute differ, Rosenstein said his office faces a difficult time upholding the long prison terms it originally secured.  He called new interpretations of sentencing laws "one-way ratchets in favor of the defendants."  Had prosecutors known the sentences were vulnerable, Rosenstein said, they might have used a different strategy — pursuing a different combination of charges, for example — to obtain a similar outcome.

Mary Price, general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that is one of the benefits of the Supreme Court ruling.  Rather than letting prosecutors depend on the mandatory sentences, the new approach will require them to work a bit harder to convince judges to hand out long prison terms, keeping the bench as a check on the system, she said. "Mandatory minimums provide prosecutors control over what the sentence is," Price said. "That whole setup has a problem with it."

June 23, 2014 at 11:36 AM | Permalink

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"While all the cases in dispute differ, Rosenstein said his office faces a difficult time upholding the long prison terms it originally secured. He called new interpretations of sentencing laws "one-way ratchets in favor of the defendants." Had prosecutors known the sentences were vulnerable, Rosenstein said, they might have used a different strategy — pursuing a different combination of charges, for example — to obtain a similar outcome."

Third Strikers probably wish they could go back and redo their 1st and 2nd strikes pleas, too.

The irony is we've been through all this.

In 1932 Edwin M. Borchard studied wrongful convictions and found, wait for it, false confessions and mis-identification were the primary causes. Gee, aren't we smart today? The book is online: Convicting the Innocent: Errors in Criminal Justice.

Police interrogations were also a cause, and the documentary Scenes of a Crime reveals how false confessions and wrongful convictions happen. What is so fascinating is the documentary plainly demonstrates the subconscious assumptions of the investigators, the prosecution, the jurors and the judge, just as Theodor Reik explained in his The Unknown Murderer (1932).

Nothing new under the sun.

Posted by: George | Jun 23, 2014 8:26:55 PM

I don't think it's quite accurate to say determining which laws fit the crime have continually vexed courts. The rules have been clear for awhile. Lower courts have just tried to get away with expanding the rules and the Supreme Court said no.

Yes, this is a cost of diversity of state laws - some will fit and some won't. But in a world of general verdicts and strategic plea bargaining, you have to assume proof of the minimal facts needed to convict. Just as states aren't looking at federal law when they create their statutes, defendants aren't either when deciding what's worth fighting.

Posted by: Erik M | Jun 24, 2014 8:32:52 AM

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