By Michael Mitchell

Today, in the criminal case of United States v. Doe, an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, upholding the defendant’s conviction and sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Defendant Challenges District Court’s “Armed Career Criminal” Determination

The Fourth Circuit considered whether the district court erroneously determined that the defendant had at least three prior convictions for burglaries committed on different occasions, which would warrant an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”).

Enhanced Sentence for Repeat Offender

The district court sentenced the defendant Lawrence Doe, Jr. to 180 months in prison after he pled guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(1)(g) (2012). In order to qualify for the ACCA, the defendant must have the requisite number of prior convictions. For burglaries, the defendant must have at least three prior convictions from separate and distinct incidents in order to receive a longer prison sentence.

District Court Has Discretion to Determine Qualification

Under Almendarez-Torres v. United States, the district court can determine whether a defendant’s prior conviction qualifies for the ACCA.  This determination does not need to be submitted to a jury nor proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to meet the requirements for an increased sentence.

Three Prior Convictions Within District Court’s Discretion

The defendant argued that his prior convictions did not occur on three separate occasions to fall within the scope of the ACCA under Descamps v. United States. However, the court held that Almendaraz-Torres overruled this exception, finding that the district court had the discretion to determine that the defendant’s prior convictions qualified for enhanced sentencing as an armed career criminal without submitting the issue to a jury. The government’s burden of proof is not a preponderance of the evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. Nonetheless, the Fourth Circuit also found that the defendant had “at least three qualifying convictions that occurred on different occasions and arose out of separate and distinct criminal episodes” sufficient to warrant an enhanced sentence under the ACCA.

District Court’s Determination Affirmed by Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment upholding the defendant’s conviction and 180-month sentence as an armed career criminal under the ACCA.