Supreme Court Split on Firearm Sentencing Laws

( – The Supreme Court heard arguments in the consolidated cases of Brown v United States and Jackson v United States on November 27. The cases relate to applying the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) concerning which federal drug schedule definitions a sentencing court uses in deciding whether the ACCA applies.

What Is the Armed Career Criminal Act?

Congress enacted the ACCA in 1984 to stem the rising tide of crime. Like three-strike laws, the act provides a 15-year minimum sentence enhancement for criminals caught and convicted of possession of a firearm who have three previous violent felony or serious drug offense convictions.

The law defines a serious drug offense as international drug trafficking or as a violation of either the Controlled Substances Act or the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act. Alternatively, under state laws, manufacturing or distributing controlled substances or possessing them with the intent to manufacture or distribute them also qualifies as a serious drug offense.

However, over time, the list, or “schedule,” of drugs classified as federally controlled substances has sometimes fluidly changed. Yet, the ACCA has no time statute of limitations. Courts can consider qualifying convictions, regardless of age. The changing definitions and the discretion each sentencing court might have in applying them gave rise to the two cases.

What Are the Plaintiffs Asking the SCOTUS to Decide?

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in each case are asking the High Court to determine which federal drug schedule a court must consult and use when deciding whether the ACCA applies to sentencing. For instance, the 11th Circuit Court held that a sentencing judge should use the federal drug schedule from when the original drug offenses actually occurred.

Yet, the Third, Fourth, Eighth, and 10th Circuit Courts held that a sentencing judge should use the federal drug schedule from when the firearm offense occurred. Attorneys for Justin Rashaad Brown contend that a sentencing judge should use the federal drug schedule current at the time of sentencing.

Brown’s attorney, Jeffrey Green, argued that the ACCA’s goal was only to burden the most serious offenders and that using current law and federal schedules was in keeping with the Court’s sentencing guidelines. Similarly, Andrew Adler argued the case before the Court on behalf of Eugene Jackson.

Adler pointed out that if lawmakers changed statutes reclassifying an offense as no longer “serious,” sentencing judges wouldn’t consider the past offense a predicate when evaluating the ACCA. He argued judges should treat the federal drug schedule the same way: If Congress removes a substance before an offender commits a gun offense, then the working definition of the ACCA changes, as well.

Austin Raynor argued the government’s viewpoint that the schedules from the original drug convictions should stand. He argued that Congressional changes to the federal drug schedule don’t negate prior convictions and that the law predicates the ACCA enhancement penalty on those previous convictions.

Justices will decide the case in Spring 2024.

~Here’s to Our Liberty!

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