Supreme Court to Decide Reach of 3-Strikes Law

An Indiana man says multiple convictions from a weeklong burglary spree when he was 18 shouldn’t enhance a gun possession sentence.
Supreme Court to Decide Reach of 3-Strikes Law
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on June 30, 2023. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court will consider whether a judge or a jury gets to decide whether criminal defendants’ prior convictions justify enhanced sentencing under a federal three-strikes law.

The case, Erlinger v. United States (court file 23-370), is the second Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) case the court has agreed to hear in its current term, which began in October.

The court is expected to decide whether the Constitution requires juries to go through fact-based inquiries to figure out whether a defendant has committed multiple prior offenses on separate occasions and therefore qualifies for an enhanced sentence under the ACCA.

The ACCA states that a mandatory minimum sentence and, in some cases, a life sentence, should be imposed when a defendant has three prior qualifying convictions that were “committed on occasions different from one another.”

The Supreme Court didn't explain why it granted the petition for certiorari, or review, on Nov. 20. No justices dissented. At least four of the nine justices must vote to grant a petition for it to move forward to the oral argument stage.

The often-litigated ACCA of 1984 was enacted in response to concerns that a small number of repeat offenders commit a disproportionate number of offenses.

The statute requires that a 15-year minimum sentence be imposed on people found guilty of illegally possessing a firearm who have three or more prior convictions for a violent felony such as burglary committed on different occasions.

A violent felony is defined by the statute as one that necessarily involves “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

In 1991, petitioner Paul Erlinger, who was 18, entered guilty pleas to four counts of burglary arising out of events that took place in the same week in Dubois County, Indiana.

In 2017, Mr. Erlinger was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, contrary to federal law, and prosecutors cited the four burglary convictions.

He pleaded guilty and under the mandatory minimum provisions of the ACCA was sentenced to 15 years in prison to be followed by one year of supervised release.

But in July 2021, a district court granted his motion to vacate the sentence because three of the four offenses that he was previously convicted of no longer qualified under the ACCA.

At the resentencing, prosecutors had asked for him to be sentenced again under the ACCA, based on the prior convictions, but Mr. Erlinger objected, arguing that the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Wooden v. U.S. changed the complexion of the case.

In Wooden, the court ruled unanimously that William Dale Wooden didn't deserve a nearly 16-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm because his 10 prior burglary convictions arising from a single criminal episode shouldn't count as multiple convictions under the ACCA.

Mr. Wooden had previously been convicted in 1991 of breaking through the drywall dividing storage areas in a storage complex and stealing from a total of 10 units.

Mr. Erlinger said in his petition that Mr. Wooden’s burglary convictions didn't arise from different occasions because they were all committed in the same city, were charged on the same day, produced concurrent sentences, and weren't separated by intervening arrests.

The Supreme Court also held in 2013 in Alleyne v. United States that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury requires that any fact that augments a mandatory minimum sentence must be decided by a jury, not a judge.

Mr. Erlinger argued that the district court in his own case couldn't make a determination about his prior convictions because judges are “absolutely barred by the Sixth Amendment” from fact-finding.

The decision about whether the prior convictions warrant enhanced sentencing under the ACCA has to be handled by a jury, he said.

The Wooden ruling left the issue undecided, but now both Mr. Erlinger and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agree that the Supreme Court should clarify the issue.

The DOJ said in its brief that some lower courts aren't following established legal precedents.

Recent “developments make clear that this Court’s intervention is necessary to ensure that the circuits correctly recognize defendants’ constitutional rights in this context,” the department argued in a brief.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 27, the court will hear Brown v. United States (court file 22-6389) and Jackson v. United States (court file 22-6640), which have been consolidated.

The consolidated case examines the interaction of the ACCA and federal drug laws, which frequently change.

In both individual cases, the defendants were given mandatory 15-year sentences because they were previously convicted of serious drug offenses.

The Supreme Court is expected to consider whether courts should focus on the drug laws in effect at the time of the firearms conviction or the drug laws in effect at the time of the drug offenses.

The petitioner, Justin Rashaad Brown, had asked the Supreme Court to review his case because the federal government had already decriminalized hemp by the time he was convicted on a gun charge.

The oral argument in Erlinger v. United States hasn't yet been scheduled but is expected to take place in the new year. A decision would likely follow by June 2024.