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Juvenile Offense Doesn't Make You a Career Criminal: 2nd Cir

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Courts cannot apply the armed career criminal sentencing minimum based on juvenile offenses, the Second Circuit ruled on Monday. Just like your childhood paper route doesn't make you a career journalist, neither can a juvenile offense be used to apply a career criminal enhancement.

The case involved Jamell Sellers, who received a statutory mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years under the Armed Career Criminal Act, in part based on his juvenile drug conviction. That conviction, in which Sellers was adjudicated as a youthful offender, can't count as one of the predicate three prior convictions needed under the ACCA, the Second Circuit found. The Second Circuit's decision to nerf the federal version of a "three strikes" law comes just as the Supreme Court considers whether the Act results in unconstitutionally excessive sentences.

I'm Really More of a Hobbyist, Anyway

Sellers had been arrested in Brooklyn for possessing a firearm as a felon, in violation of federal law. That charge would have resulted in a maximum ten year sentence, with no mandatory minimum. However, the Armed Career Criminal Act imposes a 15 year minimum when an offender has three previous, separate convictions for violent crimes or drug offenses.

Sellers had plead guilty to selling a controlled substance on school grounds when he was 17 years old. He was adjudicated as a youthful offender (YO) and given five years probation. When he reoffended three years later, he was sentenced to 16 to 48 months for that previous offense. The government, and the district court, had treated that adjudication as a previous conviction under the ACCA.

YO Adjudication Not a Valid Conviction for ACCA

Under the ACCA, predicate convictions cannot include convictions that were "set aside." In more than four recent cases the Second Circuit had treated YO adjudications as final felony convictions for federal purposes. But! -- none of those laws required the court to examine if the adjudication was set aside. Since the ACCA requires the court to apply state law in determining if convictions have been set aside, the Second Circuit was easily able to differentiate Sellers' case from the others.

In New York, a conviction is prerequisite to a YO adjudication. Thus, the adjudication replaces the conviction, substituting the adjudication for the proceedings that came before it. That is by definition a conviction that has been set aside, the court found.

The Second Circuit's decision limits the applicability of the ACCA, which has faced criticism that it makes it too easy for prosecutors to apply excessive minimum sentences. Whether the Act's "tough on crime, heavy on time" approach is unconstitutional is currently before the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in that case last Monday.

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