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Media Alerts - United States v. Young -- Sixth Circuit
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October 29, 2014
  United States v. Young -- Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit upholds the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence of a man charged with possession of seven shotgun shells in violation of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Areas of Law: Criminal Law; U.S. Constitution

Issues Presented: (1) Did the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for the possession of seven shotgun shells violate the proportionality principle of the Eighth Amendment? (2) Did the lower court's failure to notify the defendant of his legal impediment violate the defendant's right to due process under the Fifth Amendment?

Brief Summary: The defendant, a convicted felon, received a 15-year prison sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act for the possession of seven shotgun shells. He appealed, arguing that this sentence violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and that the lower court had also violated his due-process rights by failing to notify him of his legal impediment. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the sentence, noting that the defendant's past criminal record was an important factor.

Extended Summary: Edward Young came into possession of seven shotgun shells while helping a widowed neighbor sell off her late husband's belongings. The record showed that there was no "risk of harm or violence" from his mere possession of the shells because he did not possess a compatible gun; there was no evidence that he used the shells in a crime or intended to use them in a future crime; and there was no evidence that he planned to give them to someone else who would use them in a crime. The court further found that Young's innocent acquisition of the shotgun shells was of "the lowest level of culpability that could have rendered him guilty." Nevertheless, the lower court imposed a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for this possession crime under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).

Young appealed his sentence, first arguing that the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it was grossly disproportionate to the offense he committed. Second, he argued that the lower court's failure to notify him of his legal impediment in the lower court's sentencing colloquy and other sentencing-related documents violated his right to due process under the Fifth Amendment.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In rejecting Young's Eighth Amendment argument, the court relied on the Supreme Court's three "objective criteria" for assessing proportionality: (1) the gravity of the offense compared with the harshness of the penalty; (2) the sentences imposed on others in the same jurisdiction; and (3) the sentences imposed for the same offense in other jurisdictions. The court noted that the gravity-versus-harshness test typically answers the question without a need for further inquiry. Unless a court finds that there is a gross disproportionality between the gravity of the crime and the harshness of the penalty, there is no need to look at other sentences for similar crimes.

The court acknowledged that a 15-year sentence for the possession of seven shotgun shells was "harsh and severe," but it noted that "[f]or recidivist offenders, the line is different." Gross disproportionality is rarely met and is especially hard to meet in non-capital-punishment cases, the court observed. But the court relied heavily on Young's recidivism, describing his prior burglaries as his "Achilles heel." His prior offenses included four counts of burglary and seven counts of aggravated burglary. These past crimes involved theft of weapons and ammunition, and also qualified as violent felonies under the ACCA. The court also found it relevant that, while no burglary charges were made in the present case, the ammunition was found during a search for stolen tools, and several other stolen items were found in Young's house during that investigation.

As to Young's Fifth Amendment due-process argument, the Sixth Circuit noted that "unless the statute is so vague, technical, or obscure that it threatens to ensnare individuals engaged in apparently innocent conduct, [the court applies] the centuries-old maxim that ignorance of the law is no excuse." The language in ยง 922(g) of the ACCA plainly states that it is "unlawful for any person . . . who has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . [to] possess . . . ammunition." Therefore, even though the lower court didn't specifically inform Young of his legal disabilities, he was put on notice by the statute itself.

Concurrence: Judge Stranch wrote a concurrence suggesting possible changes to the ACCA, such as allowing for safety valves or graduated sentences based on the kind of weapon or ammunition possessed, the indicia of risk, or how remote the prior crimes. He added that district-court judges are in a much better position than Congress to decide what risk a defendant poses to society and should therefore have discretion in sentencing. Finally, Judge Stranch stated that although he believes that "mandatory minimum laws are ineffective in achieving their purpose and damaging to our federal criminal justice system and our nation," he was bound by precedent to uphold the sentence.

Panel: Judge Griffin, White, and Stranch

Date of Issued Opinion: September 11, 2014

Docket Number: 13-5714

Counsel: ARGUED: Douglas A. Berman, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY MORITZ COLLEGE OF LAW, Columbus, Ohio, for Amicus Curiae. Christopher T. Varner, EVANS HARRISON HACKETT PLLC, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant. Christopher D. Poole, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Christopher T. Varner, EVANS HARRISON HACKETT PLLC, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant. Christopher D. Poole, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee. Douglas A. Berman, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY MORITZ COLLEGE OF LAW, Columbus, Ohio, Candace C. Crouse, PINALES STACHLER YOUNG BURRELL & CROUSE CO., L.P.A., Cincinnati, Ohio for Amicus Curiae.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/14a0234p-06.pdf

Case Alert Author: Jerrod Simpson

Author of Opinion: Per Curiam

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Edited: 10/29/2014 at 12:27 PM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 10/29/2014 12:15 PM     6th Circuit  

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