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4 min read

Supreme Court Decision Triggers Sentence Review for ACCA Offender


In 2008, Samuel Jenkins admitted guilt to possessing a firearm as a felon, leading to a mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) due to his prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Among these prior offenses was an aggravated assault conviction under Pennsylvania law. Jenkins received a 15-year prison term and 5 years of supervised release, which he did not appeal.

A significant turn occurred when the Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. United States (2015), declaring the residual clause of ACCA unconstitutionally vague, which retroactively affected cases like Jenkins's. This called into question whether Jenkins's aggravated assault conviction met the criteria of a violent felony under the elements clause of ACCA, which hinges on the use or threat of physical force.

Jenkins, invoking Johnson's precedent, sought to amend his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, contending that his conviction for Section 2702(a)(3) did not involve the necessary physical force to qualify as a violent felony under ACCA. Despite his argument, the District Court dismissed his motion. However, acknowledging the potential for disagreement, the District Court provided Jenkins with a certificate of appealability, leading to his timely appeal.

The appeal was made after the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, rejected the motion. This legal appeal centers around whether second-degree aggravated assault of a protected individual under Pennsylvania law qualifies as a "violent felony" as defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit argued that it does not meet the criteria.

"Violent Felony" Classification under ACCA

In determining whether a prior conviction qualifies as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), the courts follow a strict legal approach. They focus on the elements of the offense rather than the defendant's specific actions. For example, in a recent case in Pennsylvania, the court used a categorical approach to analyze whether a particular subsection of the state's aggravated assault statute constituted a violent felony under federal law.

The key distinction lies in whether the state law is broader than the federal law in defining what constitutes a violent felony. If the state statute encompasses actions not classified as violent felonies under the ACCA, then convictions under that statute do not count as predicate offenses for sentencing enhancements.

Regarding the case at hand, the court examined if the aggravated assault conviction met the criteria set forth by the ACCA's elements clause, which includes the use or attempted use of physical force against another person. The interpretation of "physical force" entails force capable of causing physical harm to another individual.

The Pennsylvania law in question addressed causing bodily injury to specified individuals in the performance of their duties. The argument put forth was that this statute could be violated without the use or attempted use of physical force, such as through offensive gestures or by failing to act, like neglecting to provide necessary care.

The contention was supported by a prior decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which indicated that the statute could be breached through inaction, potentially undermining its classification as a violent felony under the ACCA framework.

Pennsylvania's Aggravated Assault Statute in the ACCA Context

The court has ruled that certain offenses under Pennsylvania's aggravated assault statute do not qualify as violent felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act due to the possibility of being committed through omission rather than the use of physical force. While some aggravated assault charges involving intentional bodily injury with a deadly weapon were considered violent felonies, others lacking a clear requirement of physical force were not. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified that for certain sections of the statute, including one related to second-degree aggravated assault, liability could extend to omissions, not just affirmative acts. The court reasoned there is no express force element in §2702(a)(1) and no reference to the manner of inflicting injury. It distinguished §2702(a)(1) from subsections that specify how injury must be caused. The state court made clear serious bodily injury under §2702(a)(1) can be caused by acts of omission.

The state court's reasoning requires concluding §2702(a)(3) can also be violated by omission. Section 2702(a)(3) shares the two key features of §2702(a)(1) relied on by the state court. The differences between the two subsections are immaterial regarding whether the statute can be violated by failure to act. So under the state court's reasoning, §2702(a)(3) can be violated by forcible or non-forcible means, including omission. Section 2702(a)(3) does not overlap with ACCA's definition of violent felony, so the realistic probability test does not apply. In sum, §2702(a)(3) can be violated by failure to act and thus is not a violent felony under ACCA.

Final Ruling and Closing Thoughts

The argument made is that Jenkins does not need to show a conviction for failing to act under a specific statute to challenge his sentence. The key test to consider is whether there is a realistic probability that the state law would be applied in a way that differs from the generic federal crime definition. In this case, the state law in question allows for violations through omission, which does not align with the federal law's requirement of physical force for the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). As a result, the offense Jenkins committed does not qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA. Therefore, Jenkins lacked the necessary prior offenses to trigger the ACCA penalty provision, leading to a decision to overturn the District Court's ruling and review Jenkins's sentence accordingly.

In this case, we have come across a peculiar outcome. We have determined that certain types of assault in Pennsylvania do not qualify as violent felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), while others do. This decision, made through a categorical approach, may seem counterintuitive as it prioritizes a strict interpretation of the law over a sense of justice and fairness. The limitations of this approach have been widely recognized and criticized by the judiciary. Although it is unlikely that anyone will ever be convicted under a specific statute for a particular type of assault, the way the law is written forces us to classify all individuals convicted under that statute as non-violent felons under the ACCA. It is a perplexing situation, indeed.