4th Circuit Overturns Armed Career Criminal Sentence Enhancement

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 13, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This week, the Fourth Circuit released what our Southern roots recognize as "a mess of opinions" in United States v. Vann, a case examining presentencing reports, sentence enhancements, and grammar in a guilty plea.

What, you might wonder, constitutes a mess? How about 7 separate opinions totaling 100 pages.

If you do criminal defense work within the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals' jurisdiction, and represent a client who wants to enter a guilty plea, you unfortunately need to read this case. If you want an idea of what you're getting into, we're here to help.

Felons can't have firearms. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, felons face a 10-year statutory maximum penalty for post-felony firearm convictions. A person who has three priors for drug distribution offenses or violent crimes faces a sentence enhancement: a 15-year mandatory minimum and a life sentence statutory maximum.

Remember conjunctive and disjunctive terms from grade school grammar? They still matter in this case.

Torrell Vann, a convicted felon, was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Vann had three priors under North Carolina's Indecent Liberties Statute. The statute includes two prohibitions. The first prohibits the nonviolent act of taking or attempting to take indecent liberties with a child. The second prohibits a violent act: committing or attempting to commit a lewd or lascivious act upon or with a child. North Carolina separates the two prohibitions with the disjunctive connector "or."

Because Vann had pleaded guilty to violating the Indecent Liberties Statute, his presentencing report for felony firearm possession indicated that he qualified for a sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Vann objected to the sentence enhancement, arguing that his Indecent Liberties convictions had been mischaracterized as violent crimes.

Vann's Indecent Liberties charging document, consistent with North Carolina precedent, conjunctively alleged the disjunctive components of an underlying statute. (It connected the two prohibitions with an "and" instead of an "or.") Thus the case turned on whether Vann's Indecent Liberties guilty plea was to the violent crime element, the lesser element, or both. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Vann was pleading guilty to the lesser offense.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded Vann's sentence enhancement, finding that the charging document against Vann used the conjunctive term "and," but the "and" element did not mean that Vann pleaded guilty to both Indecent Liberties prohibited acts.

The court noted that this interpretation is similar to jury trials: a defendant convicted by a jury under a conjunctively charged indictment cannot be sentenced -- in the absence of a special verdict identifying the factual bases for conviction -- to a term of imprisonment exceeding the statutory maximum for the "least-punished" of the disjunctive statutory conduct.

If you represent a client subject to an Armed Career Criminal Act penalty, review the original felony charges to determine if your client can escape the sentence enhancement.

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