Under the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA), federal law provides for enhanced penalties for people convicted of a crime involving a firearm if they have previously been convicted of several “violent felonies.” New York has similar laws that enhance penalties for persistent violent felony offenders and discretionary persistent felony offenders. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the court will be required to explain what constitutes a “violent felony” under the ACCA. The case is important to New York criminal defendants because it will define what counts as a predicate offense under the ACCA, which could have significant repercussions for a person’s sentence.
The case involves a defendant who was convicted for possession of ammunition. At sentencing, the prosecution presented evidence that the defendant had previously been convicted of five offenses: a 1974 robbery, a 1982 robbery, a 1983 attempted burglary, a 1986 burglary, and a 1994 robbery. The prosecution argued that each of the previous offenses qualified as violent felonies under the ACCA, and it sought a mandatory sentence on the current case of at least 15 years. If the defendant did not have three qualifying offenses, the maximum sentence that he could receive would have been 10 years. However, the trial court agreed with the prosecution, sentencing the defendant to 15 years.
After the U.S. Supreme Court held that part of the ACCA was unconstitutional, the defendant filed a petition, claiming that several of his previous convictions no longer qualified as “violent felonies.” The prosecution agreed that the 1983 conviction for attempted burglary was no longer a qualifying offense, but it argued that the remaining convictions still qualified under the ACCA. The court disagreed, finding that only two of the defendant’s robbery convictions qualified, and it sentenced him to 88 months.
The defendant appealed, arguing that his robbery convictions did not qualify as violent felonies. The prosecution subsequently conceded that one of the robberies no longer counted as a qualifying offense, but it maintained that a Texas robbery still qualified. A federal appellate court agreed with the prosecution, affirming the defendant’s sentence, and the defendant appealed. In November 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and the oral argument is pending.
At issue in the case is whether the specific Texas robbery offense qualifies as a violent felony. Under the ACCA, courts use a categorical approach, looking at the elements of the crime of which a defendant was convicted, rather than the facts surrounding the specific offense. To qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA, an offense must have as an element “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”
The Texas robbery statute at issue allows a defendant to be found guilty if he “recklessly causes bodily injury to another” while committing a theft. The question that the Court must answer is whether a crime of recklessness can be considered a “violent felony.” Previously, qualifying offenses were mostly limited to crimes involving a defendant’s intentional or knowing acts.
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