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ACCA Gets Man 15 Years for Possessing 7 Shotgun Shells

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 11, 2014 2:37 PM

The Armed Career Criminal Act provides sentence enhancements for convicted felons who commit firearms crimes. Commit two or more violent crimes or drug trafficking crimes and your third gets you 15 years, minimum.

Edward Young was helping his neighbor sell her late husband's possessions when he found seven shotgun shells in a box. He put them in a drawer for safekeeping. Unbeknownst to him, he wasn't allowed to possess ammunition because he had been convicted of burglary-type crimes 20 years earlier.

Police came calling to investigate burglaries at an auto repair shop nearby. Young consented to a search, and of course they found the shotgun shells. For that, he received 15 years in prison.

Our Hands Are Tied

Though it's true that "evolving standards of decency" are the benchmark of an Eighth Amendment claim of cruel and unusual punishment, the Sixth Circuit was blunt up front: "[S]uccessful challenges to the proportionality of particular sentences should be exceedingly rare." The only time the U.S. Supreme Court has, in recent history, upheld a challenge was to conclude that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.

Even acknowledging that Young didn't have the intent to use the shotgun shells criminally, or even a gun to put them in, the dispositive factor was his recidivism. There's practically no limit to the "enhancements" a state can add for recidivist offenders. In Lockyer v. Andrade, the offense for which Leandro Andrade received two consecutive terms of 25-to-life was stealing nine videotapes worth about $150. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of that sentence -- if not all of it -- was due to the prior crimes for which he already served his time. Stealing the videotapes, by itself, would normally carry a sentence of six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.

And so, as a result, Young's crime was not "grossly disproportionate" to other similar sentences (which is pretty tautological, if you agree that the other sentences were also grossly disproportionate). No one on the court seemed to like having to dole out this decision, but the law's the law.

Concurrence: Constitutional, but Not Just

Judge Jane Stranch concurred to agree that Young's sentence was constitutional, but emphasized that "holding a sentence constitutional does not make the sentence just." She noted how absurd the result was given Congress' decision to make mere possession of any amount of ammunition the same as possessing "a semi-automatic handgun with a silencer."

While recognizing the need to defer to Congress, Stranch joined a long line of critics calling for "a more sensible and targeted ACCA, one that would continue to remove from society those most likely to cause harm while allowing less severe sentences for those who, like Young, do not pose that risk."

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