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Defining Violent Felonies Under the ACCA

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By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on November 13, 2013 1:09 PM

Conrad Clinton Blair was sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA"), and appealed his sentence claiming that his prior sentences were not violent felonies for purposes of the ACCA, and were not "occasions different from one another."

The Third Circuit, however, was not persuaded.

Prior Sentences

In 2011, Blair was arrested for participating in the sale of guns, and because of his prior criminal convictions he was prohibited from possessing firearms. He pleaded guilty to two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Blair was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, the minimum under the ACCA, a sentence required for "anyone possessing a firearm after 'three previous convictions ... for a violent felony ... committed on occasions different from one another.'"

The prior convictions used to sentence Blair under the ACCA stemmed from two prior plea agreements: In 1987, Blair pleaded guilty to two counts of burglary, and in 1991 Blair pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree robbery.

Violent Felonies Under the ACCA

Blair tried to use the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Descamps v. United States to argue that subsections of the Pennsylvania robbery statute were indivisible and overbroad. The court disagreed.

The Third Circuit noted that the statute was "obviously divisible" and noted that the 1991 conviction charging documents all noted that each of the four instances of first-degree robbery included aggravated assault, making them all violent felonies.

Different Occasions Under the ACCA

Next, Blair argued that the four counts of first-degree robbery were not "committed on occasions different from one another." The court again disagreed. The Third Circuit noted that the charging documents indicated three separate dates for the four robberies, as well as "different geographic locations and victims."

Because the court found the 1991 prior convictions sufficiently satisfied the requirements of the ACCA, they did not address the 1987 convictions.

This case puts the Third Circuit on similar footing to many other circuits that have addressed the judge's role in determining prior convictions in a post-Alleyne world. The court noted, as have many other circuits, that Alleyne did not modify the existing law in Almendarez-Torres -- judges, not juries, "may determine 'the fact of a prior conviction.'"

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