Repeat Offenders: US Supreme Court limits federal law requiring enhanced sentences

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US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on Thursday limited the scope of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes enhanced sentences on repeat offenders with a past of violent felonies.

It was the court’s latest examination of the 1984 law, often criticized for vague wording, and it often splits the justices. Thursday’s 5-to-4 decision was no exception.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the court’s three liberals to limit the reach of the law, which mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for possessing a gun if the person has been convicted of three or more violent felonies.

The question for the court was whether a conviction involving recklessness, as opposed to knowingly or intentionally harming another, counts as a “violent felony” to prompt the additional punishment.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a four-member plurality that included Gorsuch, said the text of the law makes clear it could not.

A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit disagreed, but other courts have found differently, prompting the Supreme Court’s review.

Kagan, joined by Gorsuch and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said Congress was careful in its wording to mandate the enhanced sentencing only for some.

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