By Michael Mitchell

Is Enhanced Sentencing Proper when Defendant Has History of Violent Crime?

Today, in United States v. Bennerman, the Fourth Circuit considered whether the district court’s increased sentence for the Defendant as an “armed career criminal” was appropriate given his prior violent felonies in Connecticut.

Firearm Felony Results in Increased Sentence for “Armed Career Criminal”

Defendant Irving Bennerman pled guilty to possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (2012).  The district court classified Bennerman as an “armed career criminal,” which carries harsher sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), because of his history of violent felonies.  Bennerman was sentenced to 210 months in prison as a result of three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.  Although only two violent felonies are necessary for increased sentencing under the ACCA, Bennerman argued that his first degree robbery conviction in Connecticut did not qualify as a violent felony offense within the scope of the ACCA because the statute allegedly punished “more than just the crime of robbery.”

First Degree Robbery Penalizes “Immediate Use of Force” in Process of Crime

Contrary to the Defendant’s argument, the Connecticut statute for first degree robbery does not punish accessories after the fact.  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-133 penalizes a person who commits robbery, and in the process of the larceny, “uses or threatens the immediate use of force” upon the owner of the property or someone resisting the crime.  Specifically, conviction under Conn. Gen. Stat § 53a-134(a) is appropriate when the perpetrator or another participant, in the process of committing the robbery, “causes physical injury to a non-participant in the crime, is armed with a deadly weapon, uses or threatens to use a dangerous instrument, or displays or threatens the use of what he represents to be a gun.”

Violent Felony Statute Does Not Punish Accessories After the Fact

In an unpublished per curiam decision under de novo review, the Fourth Circuit determined that Bennerman’s first degree robbery conviction under the Connecticut statute was sufficient for qualifying him for the classification of an “armed career criminal” under the ACCA.  The court rejected Bennerman’s argument that the statute covered “far more conduct than the generic crime” and did not constitute a “violent felony” within the meaning of the ACCA.  Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), violent felony means “a crime that is punishable by more than one year” and the use of physical force or the risk of physical injury in the perpetration of a burglary.  The Fourth Circuit reasoned that “[a]n accessory after the fact is not a participant in the crime, . . . only becom[ing] involved after the commission of a robbery.”  Because an accessory after the fact was not considered a participant in the crime, the statute did not punish “more than just the crime of robbery” as the Defendant alleged.

Fourth Circuit Affirms Harsher Sentencing for “Armed Career Criminal”

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Bennerman’s first degree robbery conviction as well as the district court’s classification of the Defendant as an “armed career criminal,” upholding his 210-month sentence because first degree robbery qualifies as a violent crime under the ACCA.