In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an 8-1 decision in favor of a plaintiff who had three felony convictions. The man, who had been convicted for his third violent felony after being found in possession of a firearm in the mid 1980s, sought to have his jail term reduced. After initially reviewing his case, however, the Supreme Court also decided to challenge the relevant federal law, the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984.
According to news reports, the 1984 statute permitted federal courts all over the nation to count prior convictions as violent felonies in a broad range of circumstances. This legislation was passed for political reasons when lawmakers wanted to portray themselves as having tough-on-crime attitudes. By letting courts deem past offenses as violent crimes even without even proving that violence had taken place, however, this law effectively established mandatory minimum sentences for numerous individuals.
In approving the plaintiff’s bid for a reduced sentence, the Supreme Court also passed judgement on the law itself. The justices decided that as it stood, some of the language in the act was “unconstitutionally vague”.
Changing criminal laws routinely impact the way accused individuals are dealt with, and although some higher court decisions work in favor of defendants, the appeals they involve take time and effort. Factors like politically-motivated lawmaking and social climates affect both legislation and the manner in which it’s applied. In some cases, existing laws even prevent judges who would otherwise be lenient from handing down anything but mandated sentences. Building a solid criminal defense strategy with the assistance of an attorney may be critical to establishing a person’s innocence or arguing in favor of sentencing alternatives.