Hard Time for the Wrong Crimes: Is the Armed Career Criminal Act Flawed?

by Catherine Harris on August 28, 2013

(US Criminal Law) The Armed Career Criminal Act was implemented in 1984 as a response to a significant spike in gun-related crime across the United States. Commonly known as the “Three Strikes Law,” the federal legislation requires states to sentence anyone convicted under this act to a minimum of 15 years in prison. Now almost 30 years old, this federal legislation has been the recipient of considerable criticism because it enhances state laws when local prosecutors want to apply it to a particular case.

The question becomes whether the legislation is merely a prosecutorial enhancement to a primary charge or whether it should be filed as a separate offense, such as persistent felony offender charges utilized at the state level. Additionally, wording of the legislation is very vague and open to potential constitutional violations based on that language, such as the definition of a “serious drug offense.”

Purpose of the Armed Career Criminal Act
The legislation was originally written during the Reagan Administration at a time when the crime rate involving handguns was definitely on the rise. The actual trade of guns themselves was also problematic. In an effort to show that they were being “tough on crime,” Congress passed the “three strikes” law with respect to the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime. However, it has since been used to prosecute felons later found in possession of a gun that was never used in a robbery or commission of a crime.
The “violent crime” requirement has been routinely overlooked by prosecutors. The reasoning behind the legislation was sensible, but the application of the law has been largely one of overuse in potentially non-applicable cases.
Adjustments to the Law
After the Armed Career Criminal Act was enacted, the language of the bill was revamped in the following session. Congress added the wording for eligible criminals to include anyone “addicted to controlled substances” or who had been a proven “user” of a controlled substance. Additionally, illegal aliens were added to the list, along with anyone who is a “fugitive from justice.”
Possibly the most troubling of all new eligible defendant listings was the addition of mentally incompetent individuals. A mentally incompetent individual cannot be tried after being found incompetent, but the prosecutors could seek a lifetime prison sentence based on that incompetence? Almost any criminal defense attorney would advise that this loose wording added by Congress gives over-zealous prosecutors significant upward interpretational latitude in applying the law. The legislation is still potentially ripe for systemic abuse after 35 years of application.
Constitutional Questions
The immediate problem with the legislation upon rewording is the obvious nature of constitutional non-governmental interference guarantees. This distinction concerning the Bill of Rights rarely gets addressed, but the Congress “guarantees” to United States residents and citizens that the government cannot interfere in their lives if any of the constitutional standards are broken by law enforcement officials. This why the oath of office for all officers of the court is to uphold the Constitution, instead of the presumed oath to protect and serve.
In addition, the law has no maximum incarceration period, so the third prosecution that even involves the possession of a gun can result in life in prison. It is clearly flawed legislation.
United States Attorney General Eric Holder has recently announced that the incarceration system will begin reviewing all sentences for prisoners with regard to the violent nature of their crimes and make release recommendation on those sentences. The overcrowding of the system can largely be directed at overuse of this legislation, even though there is currently very little concern in Congress to clarify defendant eligibility. 

Catherine Harris is not a criminal defense attorney, but a freelance writer in Atlanta who is interested in the complex implications and effects of mandatory minimum sentencing on our society as a whole. She is happy to offer this post to encourage wider discussion of the Armed Career Criminal Act.
Catherine Harris

Catherine Harris

I am a freelance journalist who writes about medical, healthcare and legal issues for professional audiences as well as the general public.
Catherine Harris
Catherine Harris
Catherine Harris

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