Enhanced Sentence for Reckless Violence Faces SCOTUS Scrutiny

WASHINGTON (CN) — The police had been searching a Memphis boarding house for drugs when they discovered 13 bullets in the room of the manager, who was not supposed to have ammunition because of a prior felony conviction.

On Friday the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the 15-year sentence given to James Walker for possession of those bullets was disproportionate.

As noted in his petition for certiorari, Walker collected the bullets while cleaning a room in 2007. He moved them to his room for safekeeping, and no gun was ever recovered. Fifteen years was the mandatory minimum sentence after a jury convicted him at trial, but a federal judge later ordered Walker released as time served on a shorter sentence based on Walker’s perfect disciplinary record and other factors.

Walker’s freedom proved short lived, however, after a Sixth Circuit reversal earlier this year. When the federal appeals court refused to rehear the case en banc, three judges dissented, noting that the issue of labeling reckless violent felonies “recurs frequently and typically doubles a defendant’s sentence.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge noted in particular that, “by our inaction — we send back to prison, quite wrongly in my view, a 65-year-old man whose crime was possession of a dozen bullets and who had already served the sentence (88 months) that the district court thought sufficient.”

Walker’s is the latest case to go before the court that involves the statutory interpretation of “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act.

“In short, the courts of appeals have taken divergent and flatly inconsistent positions on whether offenses that can be committed recklessly qualify as ‘violent felon[ies]’ under the ACCA’s force clause,” the petition for certiorari states. “Several of those courts have expressly acknowledged the existence of the circuit conflict, which has only continued to deepen. And the consequences of that conflict could not be more stark: if petitioner’s case had arisen in the First, Fourth, or Ninth Circuits, he would be home for good with his family. But because his case arose in the Sixth Circuit, he faces the prospect of returning to prison to serve out the remaining years of a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence that the district court itself described as unjust. The mature circuit conflict on the question presented warrants the court’s review.”

Noting the many lives hanging in the balance with this case, Walker’s attorney emphasized that more than 6,700 individuals were convicted in 2018 under the firearms-possession statute to which the ACCA applies.

Walker is represented by Kannon Shanmugam. The attorney with the firm Paul Weiss declined to comment.

Per its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue any comment Friday in taking up Walker’s case.

In the government’s opposition brief, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco focused on the drug sales that drew police to Walker’s boarding house in the first place. Walker purportedly frequently sold crack cocaine to undercover officers and had 0.3 grams of the substance in his room during the bust.

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