The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is one of the harshest federal gun laws. If a defendant has three or more violent felonies or serious drug crimes, the penalty for being a felon-in-possesion of a firearm goes from a maximum of ten years’ incarceration to a mandatory minimum of fifteen years and a maximum of life. Camden Barlow entered a guilty plea to being a felon-in-possesion knowing that the government believed that he was an Armed Career Criminal. After he pled, however, he sought at sentencing to first undo his plea by arguing that none of his prior convictions qualified him as a felon under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). He alternatively argued that even if he were a felon-in-possesion, he did not have the requisite three prior convictions for violent felonies required by the ACCA. He lost in the district court on both arguments.
The two issues in the case were: (1) What is a felony? and (2) What is a violent felony?. As with many terms of art in federal sentencing, what seems like an easy question becomes complex when its answer requires delving into state sentencing procedures. For ease of application, federal sentencing law says that any crime, whether a state classifies it as a felony or a misdemeanor, is a federal felony if its maximum penalty is over one year in jail. Seems simple enough, but in practice it isn’t.