It's a well-known fact that, under federal law, people convicted of a felony are prohibited from possessing a firearm, and if felons found possessing firearms can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison. Lesser known are the much more strict - and now partially unconstitutional - standards of the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA"). Under that act, felons who have three or more felony convictions for a "serious drug offense" or a "violent felony" can be sentenced to anywhere between 15 years and life and prison if they were found possessing a gun. Two recent Supreme Court decisions - one decided in 2015 and one decided last month - now call into question the sentences of defendants convicted under the ACCA, and people who have previously been sentenced under the ACCA may be able to reduce their sentences.
Johnson: SCOTUS Declares Portions of the ACCA Unconstitutional
In Johnson v. United States, a defendant found to be in possession of a weapon was sentenced to 15 years in jail under ACCA on the basis that he had three previous "violent felonies", one of which was possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Under the ACCA, there are multiple standards for what qualifies as a "violent felony." One of those standards, referred to as the "residual clause," states that a "violent felony" includes any felony that "involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."
Johnson argued that this residual clause definition of a violent felony was unconstitutionally vague and simply possessing a shotgun should not be considered a violent felony. The Supreme Court in 2015 agreed with Johnson, ruling that the definition of a violent felony in the ACCA violated the Due Process rights granted by the Fifth Amendment, as the government is prohibited from enforcing "a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement."
Welch: SCOTUS Opens Door to Early Release of Prisoners
After Johnson, the question remained whether prisoners previously serving 15+ year sentences for possessing a firearm under the ACCA would be allowed to reduce their sentence through retroactive application of the Supreme Court's ruling to their pre-2015 cases. This was the question presented in Welch v. United States, decided last month.
In that case, Welch had been sentenced under the ACCA in 2010 based on three previous convictions, one of which was a "strong arm robbery", a Florida state violation for robbery involving "the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear." The trial court sentenced him based on the residual clause "potential risk of physical injury" ACCA provision the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Johnson. As such, Welch argued his sentence should be reduced.
The Supreme Court agreed with Welch that its decision in Johnson should apply retroactively to prisoners whose sentences were based on the vague "serious potential risk" clause. But, the court also found that Welch might still be sentenced to a 15+ years if the trial court finds that his strong arm robbery qualifies under the other violent felony standards in the ACCA (other than the residual clause) which remain constitutional.
Petitioning for Early Release from an ACCA Sentence
Prisoners previously sentenced to 15+ years under the ACCA based on at least one previous felony being defined as such based on the residual clause may be able to win early release from prison, if the so-called "violent crime" does not fit into other definitions under the ACCA. Work with an experienced criminal law attorney to see if you qualify for early release and to begin the legal process for reducing your sentence. Contact the office of J. Patrick Quillian today to schedule a free consultation regarding your sentence.