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What Is the Armed Career Criminal Act?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Oct 23, 2023

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is a controversial federal law that imposes severe penalties on repeat offenders convicted of unlawful firearm possession.

This law aims to deter so-called "career criminals," particularly those specializing in violent or serious drug offenses, from further criminal activities by imposing enhanced sentences on them.

Suppose you have at least three prior convictions on federal drug charges or violent felony offenses and are convicted of illegally possessing a firearm. In that case, this law may impose an additional 15 years on your sentence.

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) imposes severe federal penalties on repeat offenders.

Simply put, the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. 924(e), requires a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence for recidivists convicted of prohibited possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) who have three prior state or federal convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.

Section 924(e)(2)(a) defines a serious drug offense as “an offense under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801), the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (21 U.S.C. 951), or chapter 705 of title 46 for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law; or

An offense under State law involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)), for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.”

Violent felonies have an element of threat, attempt, or use of physical force against someone involving burglary, arson, or extortion.

Section 924(e)(2)(b) says, “The term “violent felony” means any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year… that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another…”

Understanding the ACCA

The ACCA is similar in scope to the "three strikes" laws imposed by many states, except that it addresses a particular scenario. The Act applies to defendants who:

  • Have three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses that were committed on separate occasions.; and
  • Are now charged with breaking a federal firearms offense by illegally possessing a firearm.

Other things to know about this law:

  • A violent felony under the ACCA includes any crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year that involves the use or threat of physical force against a person—or involves a burglary, arson, extortion, or use of explosives.
  • A serious drug offense refers to a crime involving the manufacture, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, for which the maximum term of imprisonment is ten years or more.
  • There is no time limit on when the prior offenses may have occurred. ACCA still applies whether the crimes occurred a year or 20 years ago.
  • ACCA can apply to sentences served concurrently (i.e., at the same time); however, the three prior offenses must be separate occurrences and cannot be linked to the same crime.

ACCA in Practice

To illustrate how the ACCA works, let's look at a couple of examples.

EXAMPLE 1: John has been convicted of unlawful firearm possession and has three prior convictions for armed robbery, a violent felony. Each of these robberies occurred on different dates. Under the terms ACCA, John would face an extended sentence because he meets all the criteria set out by the Act.

EXAMPLE 2: David is found in possession of an illegal firearm. He has two prior convictions, one for armed robbery and one for assault with a deadly weapon in conjunction with transporting drugs for sale. David would not qualify for mandatory minimum sentencing under the ACCA because two of the three prior offenses occurred during the same event.

What Are the Implications of ACCA Sentencing?

The implications of being sentenced under the ACCA can be significant. If a person is found guilty under the ACCA, they face a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in prison, without parole.

This is much harsher than the penalties for many other types of felonies. It is essential to note that the ACCA does not provide for any leniency or exceptions; once a person meets the criteria, the minimum sentencing rules apply.

Controversy and Constitutional Challenges

Since Congress enacted it in 1984 as part of a broader initiative to reform federal sentencing laws, the Armed Career Criminal Act's evolution has been marked by ongoing legal debates about the constitutionality and interpretation of its provisions.

Armed Career Criminal Act Controversy and Constitutional Challenges
There have been several constitutional challenges against the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Initially, the ACCA focused on individuals with three or more convictions for robbery or burglary. However, subsequent amendments expanded its scope to include other violent felonies and serious drug offenses.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States struck down the ACCA's "residual clause" as unconstitutionally vague. This decision significantly impacted the application of the ACCA, narrowing the definition of what constitutes a violent felony or serious drug offense under the Act.

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Wooden vs. the United States, ruled on the applicability of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The decision was unanimous and was written by Justice Kagan.

The Court held that a defendant who stole from ten different storage units and was charged with ten burglary offenses should only be considered as having one prior conviction because the “ten burglary offenses arising from a single criminal episode did not occur on different occasions.”

Simply put, they ruled in applying the ACCA that Wooden's burglary would only count as one conviction. This decision reversed a decision from the lower courts.

Navigating the Legal Process

Given the severity of ACCA penalties and the potential for the law to be misapplied, anyone facing enhanced sentencing under the ACCA must understand their legal rights and options.

The first step is to retain an experienced federal criminal defense attorney knowledgeable about the ACCA and its application. An attorney can help you understand the charges against you, evaluate the strength of the government's case, and develop the most effective defense strategy.

We can guide you through the complex legal process, ensuring that all procedural rules are followed and your rights are protected. Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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