Location, Location, Location: How The ACCA’s Categorical Approach Produces Vast Sentencing Discrepancies, and Why The Sentencing Guidelines Should Replace It

HALEY E. ROACH- J.D., May 2019, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law; B.A., May 2016, University of Dayton—Dayton, Ohio.

John has lived his entire life in Gary, Indiana. He joined a gang when he was fourteen and has been in and out of the correctional system ever since. At nineteen, he and two other gang members set out to break into a local drug store. They figured it would be less risky to do it after the drug store had closed, so they waited until around two o’clock in the morning and made sure to watch the manager leave before they made their move. They pried the sliding door open with a crow bar and hopped the counter, busted open the register and grabbed as much cash as they could as the alarm shrieked. Within two minutes of entering, they were headed back out the now-busted door and running back toward their car, which was parked three blocks away. But the police were quick to respond, and intercepted them, cash in hand. The State convicted John of burglary of a building or structure, a Level 4 felony under Indiana Code § 35-43-2-1, for which John was sentenced to two years in state prison.

After getting out of prison, John continued activities with the gang, and committed several more drug store burglaries over the course of the next eight years, for two of which he was charged and pleaded guilty. John, now twenty- nine-years-old, has a lengthy criminal record. He is pulled over for a speeding ticket on Interstate 90 in Gary, Indiana. The officer approaches the vehicle and notices a 9-millimeter handgun lying on the floor of the car on the front passenger side. John is arrested and, due to his criminal record, is prosecuted and convicted in federal court for being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). The federal prosecutor also charges John under the Armed Career Criminals Act of 1984 (“ACCA”), a federal law requiring minimum sentences of fifteen years in prison if the court finds that the defendant has three or more “violent felonies.” Because John’s burglaries were in Indiana, where burglary qualifies as a “violent felony” under the ACCA, John is sentenced under the ACCA to fifteen years in federal prison for possession of a firearm. But the ACCA does not produce the same result in Chicago, just fifteen miles away from where John lives.

Paul lives in Chicago and has lived the same exact life as John. Paul joined a gang as a young teenager and is not new to the criminal justice system. Like John, he participated in a series of drug store burglaries, two of which resulted in guilty pleas. A police officer pulls Paul over for speeding on a different segment of Interstate 90, in Illinois, and notices a 9-millimeter handgun lying on the floor on the passenger side. Like John, due to Paul’s criminal history, Paul is prosecuted in the federal system for being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). But the prosecutor in Paul’s case cannot apply the ACCA because Illinois, unlike Indiana, defines burglary in a way that does not qualify under the ACCA.

Indiana defines burglary as “break[ing] and enter[ing] the building or structure of another person, with intent to commit a felony or theft.” Illinois, on the other hand, defines burglary as “without authority. . . knowingly enter[ing] or without authority remain[ing] within a building, house trailer, watercraft, aircraft, motor vehicle, railroad car, or any part thereof, with intent to commit therein a felony or theft.” Federal courts decided that the ACCA covers Indiana’s definition, but found the ACCA’s “violent felony” definition did not cover the Illinois statute. If the federal prosecutor still seeks to charge Paul with a federal crime, Paul will likely receive a sentence of about two-and-a-half years for the possession charge, even though his criminal history is identical to John’s record. Identical crimes, identical circumstances, identical statute, identical circuit, but resulting in huge sentencing discrepancies. [Read entire Article here].

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