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ACCA Bonus Points For Murder, Arson, Burglary Felony Hat-Trick?

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By William Peacock, Esq. on January 30, 2013 9:01 AM

Bryan Chappell meets anyone’s reasonable definition of a career criminal. His past accomplishments include arson, murder, burglary, at least one drug offense, possessing counterfeit currency, and of course, being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The law, though, cares little of what we think, unless, of course, we are the judge or jury. The relevant question is, has he committed the requisite three prior felonies necessary to trigger an Armed Career Criminals Act sentencing enhancement?

The answer isn’t exactly “duh,” but it’s pretty close.

Chappell concedes the drug offense. Heck, he concedes all of the offenses at this point. The question is, on a fateful day in 1991 when he committed a trio of crimes, do those count as one really long spree, or multiple distinct criminal episodes?

He started the day by heading with his acquaintance Mr. Hess to the home of Terry Hill. Hess had stolen Chappell's tools and told him that they were stored at Hill's house. When they arrived, they entered through the unlocked door and searched fruitlessly for the loot. Understandably frustrated by his lost tools, Chappell did what any reasonable man missing his cordless drill would do in such a situation and burned down the house.

When Hess objected to and refused to take part in the arson, he was beaten for his principled stance and tossed into his van. Chappell drove home, picked up a gun, and drove to a bridge where he shot Hess and tossed him in a ditch. Now that might have been an unreasonable response to some missing tools.

Reasonable or not, is the burglary-arson-murder spree all one criminal episode or is it a series of crimes? Though such an inquiry is quite fact-specific, one telling factor is the location of the offenses. If there is a change in time and place between crimes, that will indicate a break between offenses.

Applied to Chappell, that means his dalliance home and drive to a scenic bridge before finishing his felonious hat trick makes this two distinct crimes for purposes of the ACCA. Add in the conceded drug offense, and the three prior strikes are present. The sentencing enhancement, therefore, was appropriately applied.

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