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Supreme Court strikes down part of controversial sentencing law


New Jersey residents may be aware that the federal government has passed a number of laws to increase the penalties for certain types of criminal activity. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses have been widely criticized, and the Armed Career Criminal Act has caused concern for judges for several years. The 1984 law provides custodial sentence enhancements for defendants who have been convicted of serious drug offenses or violent crimes three or more times in the past, but a part of the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26.

The court made the ruling in a case concerning a man who had entered guilty pleas to federal weapons charges and was subsequently sentenced to a prison term of 15 years. The man would have faced a 10-year sentence, but previous convictions meant that the sentencing provisions of the Armed Career Criminal Act were followed. The law lists a number of offenses that can lead to a longer sentence, but it also includes a catchall phrase for crimes that are not specifically mentioned.

The U.S. Supreme Court originally ruled that the mere possession of a shotgun did not qualify as a violent felony under the 1984 law, but a second round of arguments was then scheduled to rule on the constitutionality of the catchall phrase. The court ruled the phrase unconstitutional by a vote of six to three. Two of the three dissenting justices had previously voted that the shotgun offense did not constitute a prior violent felony.

Federal sentencing laws have been criticized for tying the hands of judges and giving prosecutors too much power. Many criminal cases are resolved by a plea agreement, but criminal defense attorneys may be at a disadvantage during these negotiations when mandatory sentencing laws apply. In these situations, attorneys may advocate on behalf of their clients by challenging the credibility of witness statements or questioning the behavior of police officers.

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