Justices To Decide Jury's Role In Career Criminal Sentences

By Katie Buehler | November 20, 2023, 4:58 PM EST ·

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to weigh in on whether a judge or jury should determine if a criminal defendant's prior convictions qualify them for enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a ruling an Indiana defendant and the U.S. Department of Justice agree belongs in the hands of jurors.

The justices granted Paul Erlinger's October petition for review, which asks the Supreme Court to clarify that the U.S. Constitution requires juries to undergo fact-intensive inquiries to determine whether a criminal defendant has committed three prior offenses on different occasions and therefore qualifies for an enhanced mandatory minimum sentence.

Both Erlinger and the federal government agree that under the high court's March 2022 ruling in Wooden v. United States , which held that offenses committed as part of a single criminal episode didn't occur on different occasions, a jury must find a defendant's prior convictions occurred on different occasions before they can be subjected to the ACCA's 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.

However, all 10 circuit courts that have considered the issue since March 2022 have found that judges can make the different occasions determination, according to Erlinger's petition and the federal government's October response brief.

"Answering the question presented is vital to protecting the Fifth Amendment's right to indictment by a grand jury, the due process right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the Sixth Amendment jury-trial right," Erlinger argued in his petition. "That question also has sweeping practical importance for criminal sentencing across the country, which has fallen into intolerable disarray in the district courts."

Some circuit courts have even called on the Supreme Court to issue a clarification, the federal government added.

"Through both their actions and their words, the courts of appeals have made the need for this court's review apparent," the government said.

Erlinger is appealing his 15-year prison sentence issued by an Indiana federal judge in relation to a charge of possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, which a Seventh Circuit panel upheld in August. He received the ACCA's mandatory minimum sentence because of four burglary charges he pled guilty to in 1991, according to court documents.

A pre-sentencing investigation for the possession charge determined Erlinger qualified for the act's enhanced sentence because of his prior convictions, and a federal judge agreed. But Erlinger claimed the burglaries are part of the same criminal episode because they were all committed in Jasper, Indiana, between April 4, 1991, and April 11, 1991.

Erlinger additionally argued the burglaries weren't committed on different occasions because they were charged on the same day in the same indictment, they produced concurrent sentences, and they weren't separated by intervening arrests.

On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, Erlinger contended his Sixth Amendment rights were violated by having a judge, not a jury, determine his status as a career criminal. But an appellate panel rejected that argument, holding the government wasn't required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Erlinger committed the prior crimes on separate occasions.

The Seventh Circuit isn't the only appellate court that is still enforcing pre-Wooden precedent, Erlinger argued, and that's why the Supreme Court needs to intervene.

"The courts of appeals have made clear that they do not intend to change course without this court's direction," he said. "And making matters worse, different district courts – and even judges in the same district – apply different rules, creating chaos in the federal trial courts and precisely the unwarranted disparities and denials of constitutional rights that warrant this court's review."

The federal government in its brief conceded in the past that it has argued against Erlinger's reading of Wooden, but it now agrees that juries must decide a defendant's status as a career criminal. The DOJ has tried to comply with this interpretation by suggesting courts employ advisory sentencing juries, but the government said its efforts have largely been rejected.

"At this juncture, further delay would serve only to increase the number of convictions that might later be called into question on Sixth Amendment grounds and impose substantial litigation burdens on the courts and the parties," the government said. "Only this court can finally resolve the question presented, and it should do so now."

Counsel for Erlinger did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Erlinger is represented by Michael R. Dreeben, Rachel A. Chung, Heather Welles and Louis W. Fisher of O'Melveny & Myers LLP and Jessie A. Cook.

The federal government is represented by Paul T. Crane of the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Division.

The case is Erlinger v. United States, case number 23-370, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

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