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What's a Maximum Sentence for Purposes of Armed Career Criminal Statute?

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD | Last updated on

The Armed Career Criminal Act requires that a person who was convicted of three violent felonies, or serious drug offenses, and then commits an offense violating federal firearms law, is deemed an armed career criminal and requires a sentence of at least 15-years imprisonment. While it may seem straight forward, many issues arise that bring into question whether a defendant should qualify as an armed career criminal.

Three Qualifying Convictions, or Two?

Roosevelt Spencer had three underlying convictions when he pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm. Finding that his three prior convictions qualified as violent felonies or serious drug offenses, the district court decided that he was an armed career criminal and sentenced him to the minimum term. While Spencer did not contest the categorization of two of his underlying felony, he denied that the third conviction qualified as a serious drug offense.

Spencer's third conviction, for a methamphetamine related offense, was Class F felony under Wisconsin law. Wisconsin provides a bifurcated sentence -- one portion relates to imprisonment, while the other part relates to extended supervision, such as supervised release. Under the Wisconsin statute, Spencer could face a total of 12 1/2 years, but with a maximum of 7 1/2 years of that time in prison.

Defining Maximum Sentence

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit had to determine what constitutes a maximum sentence for the purposes of the Wisconsin statute. Should the court include the term of supervised release when considering what constitutes the maximum sentence? The court concluded that it should not. It noted that if it did so, many more people, would be subject to, and qualify as, armed career criminals. Not only that, but many more offenses would then be applicable; the court found that to be "an unlikely, backhanded way to bring additional predicate crimes within § 924(e)."

By streamlining the interpretation of maximum sentence, to the way that lawyers and judges use the term in the ordinary sense, is a just result. The court aptly noted that there is great variance amongst state laws, but in order for the Seventh Circuit to be able to administer the law judicially in all cases, regardless of where they stem, the court noted that it "must go on what the state statute books say, rather than why they say what they do or how they got that way compared with predecessor statutes."

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