People who have been incarcerated for violating the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) may stand a chance at requesting a reduced sentence or even their release from prison. Also known as the federal three strikes law, the ACCA contained a clause that the Supreme Court ruled last year was unconstitutional in Johnson v. United States. And in March of this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Welch v. United States that Johnson would apply retroactively—meaning that people already in jail can challenge their federal three strike convictions.
Around 7,000 convicts in federal prisons are serving time for violating the ACCA, although it is unclear how many of them will be affected by the new Supreme Court ruling. If you or a family member has been convicted as an armed career criminal, you should consult with an experienced Roanoke criminal defense attorney.
The Residual Clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is Unconstitutional
The Armed Career Criminal Act, which can be found in Title 18, section 924 of the United States Code, provides that a defendant must receive an additional 15-year minimum mandatory sentence when he or she has three prior “serious drug” or “violent felony” convictions. The Act defines a violent felony as any crime that:
- Has an element of physical force
- Is burglary, arson, or extortion
- Involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to others
This last category of violent felonies is known as the “residual clause.” In Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing an increased sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause violates due process. What this means is that convicts for whom a “strike” was an offense that posed “a serious risk of physical injury” may have their conviction overturned or their sentence reduced.
What’s In Store for Violent Offenders Under Federal Law?
In the wake of Johnson, the range of offenders who might receive an enhanced sentence under the ACCA has been significantly limited. According to the United States Sentencing Guidelines, however, federal judges can still consider prior violent offenses when determining a convict’s sentence. Fearful that the sentencing guidelines might be challenged in a similar way to the ACCA, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the guidelines this January.
Slated to take effect in August of this year, the amendment to the sentencing guidelines clarifies what exactly is a “crime of violence.” Specifically, the Sentencing Commission struck “burglary of dwelling” from the list of offenses, and removed a residual clause that was similar to the one found to be unconstitutional in the ACCA. It is likely Congress will approve these changes, as it has rejected a Sentencing Commission amendment only once in the last 38 years.
It is still unclear whether this amendment to the sentencing guidelines will be retroactive. The criminal justice reform movement has urged the commission to make the amendment retroactive, with Prisology—a non-profit organization—spearheading these efforts. The Department of Justice, however, fears that applying the amendment retroactively would be “too difficult.” If the amendment is not given retroactive effect, it will only benefit violent offenders who get sentenced on or after August 1, 2016.
At Copenhaver, Ellet, and Derrico, our goal is to minimize the stress of defending against criminal charges and to achieve the best case results possible for our clients through aggressive advocacy and strategic thinking. If you or a loved one is facing the criminal justice system, we can help. Call us today at (540) 343-9349 for a free and confidential consultation of your case.