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May 19, 2008

On a busy criminal justice day, SCOTUS applies ACCA broadly in Rodriquez

Continuing its somewhat puzzling approach (and voting paterns) in ACCA cases, the Supreme Court today in United States v. Rodriquez, No. 06-1646 (available here) held that state recidivism enhancements can help trigger ACCA's long sentencing provisions.  The vote was 6-3 with Justice Alito writing for the majority and Justice Souter writing a dissent joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg.

Based on a quick read, it seems that the Justice avoided some of the intricate constitutional and statutory issues lurking around Rodriquez, but I am going to need a lot more time to process the opinions along with all the other criminal justice work the Justices did today (as summarized here at SCOTUSblog).

I have started my analysis of the SCOTUS work with Rodriquez because it strikes me as the most practically consequential of the decisions handed down today.  But readers are encouraged to help me and others chart a path through the Court's other work on child porn in Williams and explosive sentencing enhancements in Ressam.

UPDATE:  Rodriquez is a very interesting read, and both the majority and dissent make strong points and cover a lot of intriguing ground.  What I find most interesting is Justice Scalia's silence, especially since he tends to be one of the biggest fans of the rule of lenity in construing federal criminal statutes and he has been vocal in prior ACCA cases like Begay and James.  I surmise that, other than the two Justices writing the main opinions in Rodriquez, none of the other Justices had the interest or energy to get deeply invested in this intricate little case.  On both sides of the debatein Rodriquez, a feeling of "good enough for government work" comes through.

And, after reading this opinion against the backdrop of Anita Krishnakumar's recent ACCA exegises at CO here and here, I likely will not be the only one who keeps in mind the hazards of predicting the views of various Justices in modern federal criminal justice debates.

May 19, 2008 at 10:32 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on May 19, 2008 7:31:23 PM



Ressam will be easy for you. To boil it down, the Court holds that "during" means "during." This seemingly mundane result is actually a refreshing reminder that words have meanings, and cannot be "interpreted" to mean whatever one wants.

Justice Breyer, writing alone, takes a weak stab at Stevens' majority opinion. Breyer is an exceptionally bright man, but he looks like he's straining on this one.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 19, 2008 11:00:19 AM

Doug, it seems that the Rodriguez majority has forgotten its own decision in Apprendi v New Jersey.

Justice Alito writes, "It is hard to accept the proposition that a defendant may be lawfully sentenced to a term of imprisonment that exceeds the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by law."

Yet, that is exactly what the prior conviction exception to the Apprendi Rule allows. Blakely defines the phrase "prescribed statutory maximum" as the greatest punishment allowed under the verdict or plea alone. The fact of a prior conviction may be used to increase the defendant's punishment above the prescribed maximum. Therefore, what Justice Alito finds hard to accept is what the Court specifically allows in Apprendi and Blakely.

Rodriguez took a triple whammy from the recidivism hammmer. He was convicted of Felon in Possession, which relies on a prior conviction as part of the definition of the offense. Then, his State law drug conviction was made eligible for ACCA use because of the use of prior convictions to raise the maximum possible punishment to ten years. Finally, the ACCA, a sentence enhancing statute based on recidivism completes the triple hit taken by the defendant.

I do not see how a recidivist statute can trigger the application of a recidivist statute and not be inconsistent with the double jeopardy clause and the rule prohibiting collateral attacks on prior convictions. If a prior conviction is an element of an offense, as Rodriguez says it is , then a defendant has a right secured by the due process clause to directly challenge all elements of the offense during the trial for the current charge. That conflicts with the presumption of regularity of court judgments establishing the existence of a prior conviction and the requirement that the validity of prior convictions be challenged in the file of the original conviction.

Rodriguez did nothing to diminish the morass of the law of prior convictions.

Posted by: bruce cunningham | May 19, 2008 10:54:41 PM

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