In yet another example of how mandatory minimum sentences continue to limit the discretion of federal judges and unfairly punish certain defendants, a man has recently been sentenced to a 15-year jail sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act for being a felon in possession of weapons ammunition. At first glance, it doesn’t sound so bad, right? I don’t think anyone would consider it unreasonable to prohibit individuals convicted of certain violent crimes from owning weapons or possession ammunition for guns.
But here is the crazy part…..the 15-year sentence was based on police officers finding 7 shotgun shells inside of the defendant’s home within a cabinet drawer.
I repeat, 7 shotgun shells! To provide some context, in New York City, one of the toughest jurisdictions on illegal weapons possession in the nation, possession of an actual shotgun is only an unclassified misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 1 year in jail.
The defendant appealed the sentence, arguing that it would be cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of his 8th Amendment rights for the Court to sentence him to 15 years. He further argued that his possession was “passive, innocent, and initially unwitting,” and that the gravity of his offense was so low compared to the harshness of the sentence. Also, the defendant allegedly came into possession of the shells while helping a widow sell her deceased husband’s possessions and he claimed that he put them in a drawer so his children would not find them.
The Appellate Court somewhat agreed, stating that the magnitude of the crime involved the lowest possible level of culpability that could have rendered him being a felon in possession of ammo. Nonetheless, the Court upheld the conviction and sentence, ruling that while the sentence may seem harsh and severe, it is not unconstitutional in this case. Clearly, there is a little more to the story. The defendant is obviously a felon with a history of committing felonies, and he was ordered to abide by certain conditions. The Court said that it is his recidivism and prior violent felony convictions that make him eligible for the sentence, not just the current possession. Also, while most of his offenses occurred long ago, the Court said it was relevant that the ammo was found during a search for stolen tools and several stolen items were found in the house.
Is that relevant? Should a defendant continue to be punished for crimes that he has already been punished for? Courts across the country certainly think so and the standard for repeat offenders is clearly different.
However, Judge Jane Stranch, who concurred in the decision, wrote separately that while she agreed the sentence was not unconstitutional, the U.S. Sentencing Commission should take up the problem of “over-criminalization” because mandatory minimums continue to “produce sentences that can only be described as bizarre.”
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