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October 6, 2014

Details of extreme ACCA federal felon-in-possession case, US v. Young

I mentioned in class the remarkable federal case of US v. Young, in which I filed an amicus brief on behalf of the defendant in support of his Eighth Amendment claim (and had the chance to participate in oral argument as well).  Roughly a month ago, a panel of the Sixth Circuit rejected the defendant's arguments on appeal in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here); the Sixth Circuit panel's per curiam ruling starts this way: 

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer.  He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband’s possessions.  When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms — resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier — extended to ammunition.  See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice.  Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young’s sentence.

There is now a pending petition for en banc review by the full Sixth Circuit, but I will be surprised if that gets grant.  Thereafter, the defendant is likely to appeal to the Supreme Court, and I will be eager to write another amicus brief in support of that appeal when the time comes (and would be eager for any and all student help at that time).   

A lot more information about this case can be found in my various posts about it on my main blog, which I have listed and linked below:

October 6, 2014 in Notable real cases | Permalink


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I was reading a Notre Dame law review article about mandatory minimums (cited below) and it was discussing the philosophical foundations for mandatory minimums. Based on the facts in those articles, this case fails no matter which philosophical foundation we want to look at it from - there's very little utilitarian benefit from locking this guy away for 15 years, as those shotgun shells don't seem to indicate him being a serious threat to society. Sure, we might stop his string of minor thefts, but it comes at a severe cost to him, his family, and society. And if we want to look at it from a retributivist perspective, 15 years for 7 shotgun shells seems entirely unfair.

Is there any likelihood that mandatory minimums will go away soon? Cases like this highlight the fact that they aren't always appropriate, and I know the Model Penal Code: Sentencing report strongly discourages mandatory minimum sentences. Or is this an area where things will likely stay the way they are for the foreseeable future, despite the arguments against them?

That law review article I mentioned: Karen Lutjen, Culpability and Sentencing Under Mandatory Minimums and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: The Punishment No Longer Fits the Criminal, 10 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Policy 389 (1996)

Posted by: Jason Manion | Oct 6, 2014 6:12:44 PM

If you recall the Eric Holder speech handout, he point out that one of the coming changes is to 'fundamentally rethink the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.' He argues that the inflexible sentences reduce the discretion available to judges and prosecutors and juries. Like you point out Jason, they don't allow for a closer look of the individual conduct and circumstances as closely, as is the case in Young.

The Attorney General referred to them as 'draconian minimum sentences' when applied to low-level nonviolent drug offenders. It seems that the AG is in agreement with you, at least for certain crimes.

I would assume, and to some extent hope, that the changes in mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes will spill over to other crimes as well. There are a great many instances where they seem inappropriate (Ewing anyone?).

Posted by: Sasa Trivunic | Oct 9, 2014 2:03:06 PM

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