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January 27, 2020

SCOTUS dismisses Walker ACCA case after death of petitioner (and after robust amicus efforts)

As noted in this post, back in November the Supreme Court granted cert in Walker v. United States to consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed with only a reckless mens rea can qualify as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Even more than the average ACCA case, the Walker case caught my attention because it involved an elderly man, James Walker, who received 15 years in prison under ACCA based on his possession of 13 bullets that he had found while cleaning a house.

Though the cert grant in Walker involved ACCA statutory interpretation concerning predicate prior offenses, I have long been troubled by any application of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term to simple possession of a small amount of ammunition.  (Indeed, long-time readers may recall I helped file an amicus brief in the Sixth Circuit and another amicus brief in support of a cert petition in a similar case, US v. Young, a few years ago.)  After seeing the cert grant in Walker, I reached out to some law professor colleagues and we filed earlier this month this SCOTUS amicus brief in US v. Walker, and here is part of the brief's Summary of Argument:

This Court’s interpretation of the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), if properly informed by constitutional principles, must avoid application to Petitioner of the ACCA’s fifteen-year mandatory minimum prison term based on his possession of thirteen bullets in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Because mere possession of ammunition is the most passive of crimes — in fact, most States do not even criminalize this behavior and it almost never results in severe punishment — a mandatory fifteen-year prison term is arguably disproportionately harsh.  That Petitioner possessed a small amount of ammunition, that he lacked any vicious or menacing mens rea, and that his prior convictions are decades old serve as additional factors suggesting that a mandatory minimum fifteen-year federal sentence for Petitioner’s offense is constitutionally suspect under any and all jurisprudential approaches to the Eighth Amendment.

As this Court has explained, the “canon of constitutional avoidance is an interpretive tool, counseling that ambiguous statutory language be construed to avoid serious constitutional doubts.” F.C.C. v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 556 U.S. 502, 516 (2009)....  Given extensive litigation over what predicate offenses qualify for ACCA’s enhanced penalties, there is little question that this Court confronts ambiguous statutory language in this case.  In turn, because any sound approach to the Eighth Amendment suggests serious constitutional doubts about the application of a fifteen-year mandatory sentence for “one of the most passive felonies a person could commit.”  Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 296 (1983), the canon of constitutional avoidance provides support for the narrower interpretation of ACCA advanced by Petitioner.  Further, the absence of a modern Court application of the Eighth Amendment to a federal non-capital adult sentence suggests that this constitutional right is precisely the kind of constitutional norm that cautions judicial restraint when interpreting an ambiguous statute.

As this case highlights, broad interpretations of ACCA present a heightened risk of constitutionally questionable mandatory minimum sentences.  This Court should limit that risk by adopting the ACCA interpretation put forward by the Petitioner.

Notably, though I believe our amicus brief was the only one to raise Eighth Amendment issues, another half dozen amicus briefs were filed earlier this month supporting the petitioner.

But, sadly, petitioner's counsel filed this notice last week reporting that James Walker passed away on January 22, 2020.  In accord with its practice, the Supreme Court via this morning's order list, dismissed the writ of certiorari in this case.  I suspect that SCOTUS will before too long take up a replacement case to address the ACCA statutory issue, though I sincerely hope there are not a lot of other cases in the pipeline that also involve application of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term to simple possession of a small amount of ammunition.  If there are, I surely will continue to complain about this extreme sentencing provision.

January 27, 2020 at 10:59 AM | Permalink

Comments

In the early 2000s, I was incarcerated at FCI - Manchester, Kentucky with a man whose ACCA sentence was based upon his having constructive possession of a single shotgun shell, which was found in the door pocket of the borrowed pickup truck he had been driving. At the time of the search and arrest, the pickup truck was parked in the driveway of his in-laws' home, where he was eating a Sunday meal after church with his wife. He may have been on probation or parole at the time, so he was subject to warrantless searches. When the agents searched his borrowed pickup truck and found the single shotgun shell in the passenger's side door pocket, they arrested him and charged him with being a felon in possession of ammunition. No shotgun was found, just a single shell. His ACCA sentence was affirmed on appeal in the Sixth Circuit (I think), so you should be able to find the old opinion on LEXIS or WESTLAW.

Posted by: James Gormley | Jan 27, 2020 12:34:10 PM

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