Criminal Law - First Circuit Upholds Constitutionality of Juvenile Convictions as Predicate Offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act

By Kasollja, Redi | Suffolk University Law Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Criminal Law - First Circuit Upholds Constitutionality of Juvenile Convictions as Predicate Offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act


Kasollja, Redi, Suffolk University Law Review


Criminal Law--First Circuit Upholds Constitutionality of Juvenile Convictions as Predicate Offenses Under the Armed Career Criminal Act--United States v. Matthews, 498 F.3d 25 (1st Cir. 2007)

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is a recidivist statute that punishes repeated criminal behavior. (1) Specifically, the ACCA enhances the minimum penalty for those who unlawfully possess firearms and have a history of prior felony convictions. (2) To constitute a predicate felony conviction under ACCA, the prior convictions must have resulted from a crime involving violence or a serious drug offense. (3) In United States v. Matthews, (4) the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit considered whether using a criminal defendant's prior juvenile adjudication as a sentencing enhancement under the ACCA offends the Constitution. (5) The First Circuit held that the ACCA's sentencing enhancement based on prior juvenile adjudications does not violate a defendant's right to due process of law. (6)

On August 11, 2003, plain-clothed officers patrolled the streets of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. (7) The officers observed Larry Matthews and others drinking alcohol outside of a housing project. (8) Upon seeing the officers approach in an unmarked cruiser, Matthews, a previously-convicted felon, adjusted his pants to secure a concealed item. (9) When one of the officers called out to Matthews by name, he immediately ran away. (10) During the ensuing chase, officers found a .22-caliber handgun underneath a mat outside the apartment where Matthews sought refuge. (11) The police arrested Matthews and the government charged him with the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm. (12)

After a jury found Matthews guilty, the judge sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. (13) The trial judge applied the ACCA's enhanced penalty provision because Matthews had three prior felony convictions, one of which was a juvenile adjudication. (14) Matthews appealed his sentence enhancement on grounds that a juvenile adjudication cannot constitute a predicate felony conviction under the ACCA. (15) The First Circuit affirmed the sentence by ruling that juvenile convictions may serve as a predicate offense without violating an individual's due process rights. (16)

Many criminal proceedings conclude with the sentencing stage, where the trial judge determines a proper punishment by considering certain factors. (17) Constrained only by constitutional and statutory limitations, the presiding judge may consider the evidence at trial, the defendant's demeanor, and a pre-sentence report in fashioning a sentence. (18) As a mandatory minimum sentencing provision, however, the ACCA explicitly requires trial judges to impose lengthier sentences upon those possessing a firearm after three prior felony convictions. (19) The ACCA's harsh and mandatory penalty reflects Congress's desire to reduce crime by incapacitating dangerous career criminals. (20)

The Supreme Court has generally upheld habitual criminal statutes such as the ACCA. (21) In Apprendi v. New Jersey, (22) the Court held that the prosecution must list in the indictment, submit to a jury, and prove beyond a reasonable doubt any fact that increases a sentence beyond the statutory maximum penalty, unless such fact constitutes a prior conviction. (23) The Court did not include prior convictions among the "facts" that the prosecution must establish beyond a reasonable doubt because such verdicts rest on trials equipped with all constitutionally-mandated procedural protections, including due process and the jury trial guarantee. (24) While the Supreme Court has not addressed whether juvenile adjudications qualify as "convictions" under the Apprendi exception, many urge that courts should interpret Apprendi's emphasis on the importance of jury trials as barring the use of delinquency dispositions to invoke the ACCA sentencing enhancement. (25) According to this theory, the law should treat juvenile and adult convictions differently because juvenile defendants face procedural inequities and do not enjoy the same constitutional rights as their adult counterparts. …

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