Can Military Convictions Count as ACCA Priors?

By William Peacock, Esq. on June 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Armed Career Criminal Act sentence enhancements: three strikes (and a gun) and you're in prison for a long, long time.

It's not a complicated concept: if you have prior violent felonies or drug-related offenses, and you're caught with a gun or ammo, you're eligible for a sentence enhancement. The question, as always, is this: what violent felonies count?

We've seen confusion over North Carolina's vague sentencing scheme. We've seen prison breaks count as well. The Supreme Court even addressed whether foreign convictions count. And now? The Fourth Circuit addressed whether convictions in a military courts-martial count.

Freddie Grant's Guilty Past

There was the cocaine thing. No issues there. But there was also the matter of that time he went off the rail in Korea, attacked a fellow soldier's face with a razor blade, and when military policemen were taking him away, he wrestled away one of their guns and tried to escape. Needless to say, this led to a general court-martial, a long stint at Fort Leavenworth, and a dishonorable discharge.

This time, he was suspected in a girl's disappearance. The search of his home turned up two boxes of ammunition, which as a felon, was a no-no. For those two boxes of ammo, he received a 212 month sentence, thanks to the ACCA enhancement.

Foreign Convictions Don't Count

Though the statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), mentions "three previous convictions by any court," the overly broad language has been limited by the Supreme Court. In Small v. United States (2005), the court held that foreign court convictions don't count.

Why? Foreign criminal justice is a whole different game. Courts abroad may "criminalize conduct that is legal in the United States." Also, foreign systems may be "inconsistent with an American understanding of fairness." (In one example, the testimony of a man was equal to that of two women.) And finally, their punishment standards may be more severe.

Courts-Martial are Also Different

Grant argues that, much like foreign courts are different from domestic Article III courts, so are Article I courts-martial. For example, judges and juries are comprised of military officers (though if an enlisted servicemen requests it, at least one-third of the jury must be enlisted) and can convict with a two-thirds majority.

It wasn't enough to convince the Seventh or Ninth Circuits, but both of those cases were decided before the Supreme Court's Small decision, and were based on taking a very broad reading of "any court." That puts the Fourth Circuit back at square one.

The Fourth Circuit looked to the purpose of the statute (deterring career criminals from possessing a gun or ammo) and the degree of differences between military and civilian courts (not huge) versus the situation in Small (potentially very huge) to hold that court-martial convictions qualify as predicate offenses under the ACCA.

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