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 March 28, 2024

Supreme Court set to examine "three strikes" sentencing guidelines for repeat offenders

Oral arguments have begun at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could challenge "three strikes" penalties for repeat offenders, according to Courthouse News Service. The court is expected to issue its ruling in June which could finally strike down the controversial policy.

The latest challenge to the Armed Career Criminals Act comes from Indiana man Paul Erlinger. He is facing a stiffer prison sentence after committing four burglaries.

Under the ACCA, a person who has three violent or drug convictions will receive a mandatory sentence of 15 years. In Erlinger's case, the burglaries were committed when he was 18 years old.

Several questions have arisen from the case, including whether the rule is triggered if three or more crimes are committed at the same time. Moreover, Erlinger's legal defense claims that the judge violated the Sixth Amendment by doing fact-finding about the previous crimes as well as how sentences should be doled out.

The Defense

Erlinger's case seeks to disentangle all the issues involved in using a so-called "three strikes" strategy when prosecuting crime.  Although ACCA has been previously upheld, Erlinger's case presents more issues.

Attorneys argue that Erlinger's crimes all constituted one occurrence. Erlinger's lawyer cited Wooden v. United States, which distinguishes between single versus multiple occurrences for crimes committed during one spree. That decision was based on a New York case, which similarly destroyed the argument that several crimes in one occurrence are enough to trigger the ACCA penalties.

Erlinger's attorney Jeffrey Fisher also took on judicial fact-finding. "Just move the fact-finding from the judge over to the jury, I don't think it's very much to ask," Fisher recommended.

However, the lower court had already ruled that past offenses could be counted in future sentencing by the judge. The Department of Justice, which would normally represent the government, weighed in on behalf of Erlinger.

Eric Feigin, DOJ deputy solicitor general, expressed a desire for a more targeted ruling from the high court about using prior convictions. "I don’t take this as a particularly complicated inquiry; it's a common sense one."

The Judges Weigh In

Justice Samuel Alito worried about jury sophistication in sifting through all of the precedents dealing with multiple crimes in one occurrence if left up to them. "Materiality, I can't think of something offhand … that's quite as multidimensional and nuanced as this," Alito said.

Although he is a Republican-appointed judge, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, agreed with his concerns. "I’m trying to understand how today’s jury adjudicates past crime facts," Jackson noted.

Both Democrat-appointed Justice Elena Kagan and GOP Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted there was precedent for this and that juries are able to sift through the information when they have to. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by a Democrat, didn't like the idea of looking at historical opinions, but Kavanaugh pointed out that it's the solution when the Constitution is mum on an issue.

When dealing with ACCA, the Supreme Court has also weighed in on cases with drug charges, the Syracuse Legal Review reported. With the legal and cultural attitudes changing on drugs, increased penalties for past crimes could be seen as unfair and deserve scrutiny.

Legal questions are often difficult to sort out when exceptions arise. However, putting criminals behind bars for as long as possible has always been a solid strategy for keeping the public safe.

Written By:
Christine Favocci

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