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Monday, May 19, 2008
The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(A)(ii), imposes a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence for felons-in-possession with three qualifying prior offenses. Under ACCA, a state drug-trafficking conviction qualifies as "a serious drug offense" if "a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law" for the "offense." The Ninth Circuit held that "the maximum term of imprisonment . . . prescribed by law" must be determined without taking recidivist enhancements into account. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the "maximum term of imprisonment . . . prescribed by law" for the state drug convictions at issue includes state recidivist enhancements, which in this case was a ten-year maximum. Justice Alito wrote for the majority, concluding that its interpretation was consistent with how the "maximum" concept was customarily understood by participants in the criminal justice process. The Court rejected the argument that a prior record of convictions has no bearing on the seriousness of an offense, and that the "maximum" punishment for a prior conviction should be the punishment unenhanced to account for prior convictions. "When a defendant is given a higher sentence under a recidivism statute – or for that matter, when a sentencing judge, under a guidelines regime or a discretionary sentencing system, increases a sentence based on the defendant’s criminal history – 100% of the punishment is for the offense of conviction." Justice Souter dissented, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, concluding that the statute’s undisputed ambiguity should have been resolved under the rule of lenity, in the defendant’s favor.