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No Mercy for ACCA Enhancement Based on Juvenile Crimes

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Paul Everett Rich III was just a wee lad of 14 when he committed his first crime: robbery with a dangerous weapon. That case was adjudicated and later "dismissed" as that term is used in Oklahoma Courts.

Two serious crimes later and a trip to a nightclub with a Bersa Thunder strapped to his hip, and he was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty to the charge and then faced a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminals Act, which includes "juvenile delinquency involving the use of or carrying of a firearm, knife, or destructive device" in its definition of prior "violent felonies."

He appealed on two grounds. He first argued that -- because the juvenile charge was "dismissed" by the court -- it should not count for ACCA purposes. Second, he argued that the ACCA violates substantive due process by considering these older, juvenile adjudications.

Dismissed Juvenile Charges

At the end of his probationary period, the judge in Rich's juvenile case dismissed the charge. Unfortunately for Rich, dismissal in Oklahoma Juvenile Court parlance simply means to terminate jurisdiction and close the case. It is not the same thing as expungement or nullifying the charge ab initio. While the case itself may be over, it still exists on the record.

Due Process

Under the Fifth Amendment, no person shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." This substantive due process protects individuals from conduct which "shocks the conscience or interferes with rights implicit in the concept of ordered liberty."

Rich argued that the sentencing enhancement deprives him of substantive due process because it places no age limits on convictions. In contrast, the Federal Rules of Evidence and Sentencing Guidelines each have age limits for considering older offenses.

Unfortunately, the Tenth Circuit was unsympathetic to his arguments, finding no constitutional issue with considering older convictions. The court cited its own unpublished prior decision in a similar case, as well as other circuits' conclusions, which all find that the ACCA's treatment of older and juvenile convictions comports with the Constitution.

Furthermore, the court took pains to point out that the sentencing enhancement is not based on a single juvenile offense alone. Rather, Rich had to violate a law as a child, then commit two more violent felonies, plus possess the gun in the present case, before the ACCA applied.

"Regardless of the inability of minors to fully understand the consequences of their actions, adults facing enhanced sentences based, only in part, on acts committed as juveniles have had the opportunity to better understand those consequences but have chosen instead to continue to offend."

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