CHICAGO (CN) – A form letter sent to former prisoners and parolees by the Illinois Department of Corrections can still mitigate some convictions’ classifications as “violent felonies,” despite recent revisions and ongoing debate, the 7th Circuit ruled.
Albert Burnett was convicted of five aggressive felonies between 1988 and 1992: murder, two attempted murders, aggravated battery and domestic battery.
After serving less than four years of his murder conviction, Burnett was released on parole, which expired in 1999. He participated in a shootout in Alton, Ill., 10 years later and pleaded guilty in federal court to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The prosecutor urged application of a 15-year minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, but U.S. District Judge Patrick Murphy declined the enhancement.
Murphy instead sentenced Burnett to 10 years because four of the convictions could not count as violent felonies under the statue’s “anti-mousetrapping rule.”
Established by the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Buchmeier v. U.S., the anti-mousetrapping rule “ensure[s] that persons who have been told that all civil rights have been restored are not taken by surprise when the statute books contain reservations (such as a ban on possessing firearms) omitted from the communication,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook explained.
“Congress wrote [the statue] to require the firearms reservation to be in communication – rather than, say, requiring the felon to search the whole of state law to discover what rights he enjoyed,” Easterbrook added.
When parole supervision on Burnett’s murder and aggravated battery convictions expired, state officials had sent Burnett letters saying that his civil rights to vote and hold office had been restored automatically under Illinois law. The letters did not mention that Burnett was still forbidden from possessing firearms.
Prosecutors argued that the letters should not factor into this case since Burnett cannot prove that he ever read or received them.
But the extent of the anti-mousetrapping rule does not revolve on the ultimate understanding of a particular communication, the 7th Circuit affirmed.
“We agree with the district court that [the statues] sets an objective standard,” Easterbrook wrote. “Nothing in the statutory language asks what a person believes. The statue asks only what a document contains.”
Though Illinois revised the letter following the Buchmeier ruling in 2009, to explicitly inform ex-prisoners that they are forbidden to possess firearms, the document is still misleading, according to the nine-page ruling.
“Illinois can and should do better to notify ex-prisoners which civil rights have been restored on which conviction, while ensuring that they know that their convictions disqualify them from possessing firearms,” Easterbrook wrote.
Because the two letters referenced only the parole completion date, not the specific conviction, Judge Murphy had ruled that the letters could apply to all four of Burnett’s convictions being served at one time.
“That is a possible reading, we suppose,” Easterbrook wrote. “A person who had been serving concurrent sentences might read the singular ‘sentence’ to designate the whole custodial term, and then the anti-mousetrapping concern that we discussed in Buchmeier implies that the letter covers all of the crimes that led to the concurrent sentence.”
But this loophole does not apply to Burnett, who was only on parole for his murder conviction. His remaining convictions for violent felonies – two attempted murders and one domestic battery – still count.
Burnett will be resentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act.