United States v. Walker: The Meaning of Not Less Than 15 Years

T.J. Matthes
58 St. Louis U. L. J. Online 65 | PDF

Introduction

The Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) mandates imprisonment for not less than fifteen years for a felon in possession of a firearm with three or more prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.[1] However, the ACCA is silent as to a maximum sentence.[2] Many people believe the phrase “not less than fifteen years” implies a judge may sentence any amount of years above fifteen, including life. However, others believe that that interpretation is oversimplified and the “not less than fifteen years” phrase should be read to authorize a fixed term of fifteen years imprisonment. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue in United States v. Walker.[3]

Police were investigating Billy Walker (“Walker”) for a burglary.[4] The officers stopped Walker’s car and asked him to exit.[5] The officers recovered a pistol on the driver’s side floorboard of Walker’s car.[6] At trial, a jury convicted Walker of being a felon in possession of a firearm.[7] The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri then found that Walker had previously been convicted of at least three requisite offenses and therefore qualified for the ACCA’s sentencing enhancement.[8] The court determined that the ACCA contained a sentencing range of fifteen years to life and sentenced Walker to 210 months (17.5 years) of imprisonment. Walker appealed.[9] The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the ACCA allows a sentence of more than fifteen years imprisonment and therefore the lower court’s sentence of 210 months was proper.[10]

I. Background

The Supreme Court has said in mere dicta that the ACCA contains a maximum of life, but has never ruled on this issue.[11] All of the United States Circuit Courts that have interpreted the ACCA read it to contain an implied maximum sentence of life imprisonment.[12] Although no court has endorsed such a reading, it bears to mention that the ACCA certainly precludes implication of a greater maximum penalty than life imprisonment without parole. The Supreme Court has noted that a “life sentence without parole is the second most severe penalty permitted by law.”[13] Because the imposition of the death penalty requires Constitutional protections clearly absent from the ACCA, there is no existing higher maximum penalty to imply than life without parole.

A.         Stimpson v. Pond & Lin v. United States

While riding circuit in the mid-1800s, former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis held in Stimpson v. Pond that a federal statute prescribing a penalty of “not less than one hundred dollars” “d[id] not authorize the infliction of a greater penalty than one hundred dollars.”[14] Rather, the “act authorize[d] the infliction of a penalty of just one hundred dollars for the offence described.”[15] Justice Curtis reasoned that the “[p]ower to inflict a particular penalty must be conferred by Congress in such terms as will bear a strict construction” and the power was “exhausted by imposing a penalty of just one hundred dollars.”[16]

Justice Curtis specifically rejected the notion of an implied maximum above the prescribed penalty: “mere implication can hardly ever be a safe ground on which to rest a penalty, and when penalties of unlimited magnitude are the subjects of the implication, the danger of making it, and the improbability of its correctness, are proportionately increased.”[17] The phrase “not less than,” with no accompanied maximum, “requires stronger implication than is found in the language” to provide a penalty above the expressed term.[18]

Later, in the early 1900s, in Lin v. United States, the Eighth Circuit confronted a similar statute in an imprisonment context and reached the same conclusion.[19] The federal statute at issue prescribed a penalty of “not less than five years” without an expressed maximum sentence for a particular drug offense.[20] The Eighth Circuit explicitly rejected the availability of a life-imprisonment sentence under the statute.[21] Citing Stimpson, the Eighth Circuit held the “statute fixes a certain punishment of five years.”[22] Both Stimpson and Lin remain good law; neither has been overruled or modified.

B.         Legislative History

Senator Arlen Specter originally proposed a career criminal bill in 1981.[23] This bill was rejected and modified several times before eventually being passed into law as the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984. In its first version of the bill, Congress drafted an extremely harsh sentencing phrase mandating a career criminal “upon conviction shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life.”[24]

After several hearings, however, Congress proposed a reduced sentence declaring that offenders “shall . . . be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than fifteen (15) years nor more than life.”[25] This amendment was significant, indicating that Congress did not want to require a life sentence in every case, but rather provide a range of penalties.[26] Notably, Congress inserted the phrase, “nor more than life” to define a sentencing range of fifteen years to life in this bill.[27]

In 1982, Congress revised the bill’s sentencing provision to state that career criminals “shall be . . . imprisoned not less than fifteen years.”[28] Congress completely eliminated the “nor more than life” wording from the bill.[29] Additionally, Congress replaced the phrase “be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of” with the term “imprisoned.”[30] This specific language was duplicated in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 and still functions as the imprisonment language in the ACCA today.[31]

II. Analysis

A.         The Court Finds a Range of 15-Years to Life and Upholds the 17.5-Year Sentence

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found the ACCA contained a sentencing range of fifteen years to life and upheld the district court’s sentence.[32] The Court relied on its prior finding of a life-maximum in the ACCA as well as the agreement of every other court of appeals to address this issue.[33] The Court noted that even though three Supreme Court Justices have expressed concern during the oral argument of United States v. O’Brien that section 924(c)(1)(b)—an enhancement of “not less than 30 years” for using a machine gun—could be imposed to use a life sentence, the “not less than 30 years” was not at issue in O’Brien.[34] The Court also reasoned that the rule of lenity does not apply because there is no ambiguity in “not less than 15 years.”[35]

Justice Bright concurred in judgment because he agreed the sentence of 210 months was not plain error.[36] However, Justice Bright wrote separately because he was troubled by the scarce justification given for the implication of a life-maximum in the ACCA.[37] He noted the express language of the ACCA imposes no upper limit, while the neighboring sections of the ACCA that afford the availability a life-sentence to the sentencing judge contain express specifications of a life-maximum.[38] Justice Bright was troubled as to why the legislature would leave out an expressed life-maximum in one section, but provide it in another section if it intended to provide a life-maximum in both.[39] The lack of an explanation as to why courts conclude the ACCA implies a life-sentence despite its silence puzzled Justice Bright.[40] He reasoned that Congress knows how to create a maximum of life imprisonment and could have done so in the ACCA.[41]

B.         Author’s Analysis

As Justice Bright states in his concurrence, no court has adequately explained why, absent language in the ACCA, a sentencing court has discretion and authority to issue life sentences.[42] However, the Stimpson and Lin Courts thoroughly explained why the “not less than…” language authorizes a fixed term penalty, and nothing higher. For example, Justice Curtis reasoned in Stimpson that “mere implication can hardly ever be a safe ground on which to rest a penalty, and when penalties of unlimited magnitude are the subjects of the implication, the danger of making it, and the improbability of its correctness, are proportionately increased.”[43] The phrase “not less than,” with no accompanied maximum, “requires stronger implication than is found in the language” to provide a penalty above the expressed term.[44]

Before the ACCA was enacted in 1984, two modifications from 1982[45] to 1983[46] reveal Congress’ intention to foreclose the availability of a life sentence. First, Congress deleted the words “nor more than life” prior to enacting the ACCA into law. The Supreme Court has pointed out that, “[f]ew principles of statutory construction are more compelling than the proposition that Congress does not intend sub silentio to enact statutory language that it has earlier discarded in favor of other language.”[47] This casts serious doubt on the idea that Congress intended an implied maximum of life imprisonment after discarding the “nor more than life” language. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has reasoned that if Congress sought to grant something in a statute, it would not intentionally substitute a confusion-generating term for pre-existing language that unambiguously carried out that objective.[48] In the ACCA, “not less than fifteen years” is a confusion-generating term substituted in place of the pre-existing language “not less than fifteen years nor more than life,” which unambiguously carried out the objective of imposing a fifteen years to life sentencing range. It follows that Congress would not remove the unambiguous provision in the 1982 bill if it intended to impose a life maximum in the ACCA. “Deletion of [a] provision from [a] bill . . . strongly militates against a judgment that Congress intended a result that it expressly declined to enact.”[49]

Secondly, Congress replaced the words “sentenced to a term of imprisonment”[50] with “shall be . . . imprisoned not less than fifteen years,” which underscores Congress’ pressing desire that ACCA offenders actually serve an entire fifteen-year prison sentence.[51] In a Senate report on September 24th, 1982, Congress said the goal of the ACCA was to provide a new federal offense to improve public safety by “incapacitat[ing] the armed career criminal for the rest of the normal time span of his career which usually starts at about age 15 and continues to about age 30.”[52] Proponents of the bill emphasized that the ACCA prescribes certain and substantial punishment—meaning no probation, suspended sentence, sentence less than fifteen years, or parole—which had not often occurred prior to the ACCA’s enactment.[53]

Pursuant to the initial language, “shall be . . . ‘sentenced’ to a term of imprisonment not less than fifteen years nor more than life,” indicates the court must order a punishment between fifteen years and life imprisonment.[54] However, this provision does not contemplate a suspended sentence or parole because the verb “sentenced” only concerns the pronouncement of the sentence by the court. Consequently, this language enabled judges to evade the ACCA’s required sentence by issuing a sentence for fifteen years, but then suspending the execution of that sentence (i.e. giving probation). Furthermore, unless expressly stated otherwise in the act, a criminal sentenced under the 1982 bill’s language could be released on parole well before serving the entire fifteen years. This difference is significant because, as Congress discussed during Senate and House hearings, many prisoners’ actual physical time spent in prisons was much less than the sentences given by Courts prior the ACCA’s enactment.[55]

Unlike the term “sentenced” in the 1982 bill, the verb “imprisoned” necessarily requires that both of the following cannot be less than fifteen years: the sentence issued by the court and the criminal’s physical presence in prison. In this context, “imprisoned” signals to courts and parole boards that no probation, suspension of sentence, sentence less than fifteen years (whether the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted following a trial), or parole shall be imposed upon an individual punished under the ACCA. This interpretation advances the congressional objective to incapacitate armed career criminals for the rest of their careers, which usually starts “at about age 15 and continues to about age 30.”[56] Given that the average prison sentence for armed career criminals at this time was less than four years, an enhanced fixed-term of fifteen years imprisonment comports with Congress’ statutory language modifications, establishes a certain and substantial punishment, and prudently anticipates the potential for prisons overcrowding. Accordingly, the “shall be…imprisoned not less than fifteen years” language does not permit a sentence longer than fifteen years; rather it establishes a fixed term and at the same time prohibits courts and parole boards from relieving an ACCA offender of the required fifteen-year confinement.[57]

Conclusion

            In Walker, the Eighth Circuit found the ACCA contained an implied sentencing range of fifteen years to life and upheld the district court’s 17.5-year sentence. By finding this sentencing range, the Court diverted from its own Circuit’s precedent in Lin and Justice Curtis’ opinion in Stimpson. The Court neglected to consider the legislative history of the ACCA, which signifies that Congress intended to provide for a fixed term of fifteen years imprisonment. The Court also failed to explain why the absence of express language giving a sentencing court discretion to impose a sentence above fifteen years under the ACCA, nevertheless, allows it to do so.

T.J. Matthes*

 



[1] 18 U.S.C § 924(e) (2006).

[2] See id.

[3] United States v. Walker, 720 F.3d 705, 706 (8th Cir. 2013).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Walker, 720 F.3d at 706.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 709.

[11] Custis v. United States, 511 U.S. 485, 487 (1994).

[12] United States v. Walker, 720 F.3d 705, 708 (8th Cir. 2013); United States v. Weems, 322 F.3d 18, 26 (1st Cir. 2003); United States v. Brame, 997 F.2d 1426, 1428 (11th Cir. 1993); United States v. Bland, 961 F.2d 123, 128 (9th Cir. 1992); United States v. Wolak, 923 F.2d 1193, 1199 (6th Cir. 1991); United States v. Fields, 923 F.2d 358, 362 (5th Cir. 1991); United States v. Tisdale, 921 F.2d 1095, 1100 (10th Cir. 1990); United States v. Williams, 892 F.2d 296, 304 (3rd Cir. 1989); United States v. Blannon, 836 F.2d 843, 845 (4th Cir. 1988); United States v. Jackson, 835 F.2d 1195, 1197 (7th Cir. 1987); Walberg v. United States, 763 F.2d 143, 148–49 (2nd Cir. 1985).

[13] Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 50 (2010) (quoting Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1001 (1991)); Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1001 (1991).

[14] Stimpson v. Pond, 23 F. Cas. 101, 102 (C.C. Mass. 1855).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Lin v. United States, 250 F. 694, 695 (8th Cir. 1918).

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] S. 1688, 97th Cong. (1981).

[24] Id.

[25] S. Rep. No. 97-585, at 3 (1982) (emphasis added).

[26] Id. at 77.

[27] Id. at 3.

[28] Armed Career Criminal Act of 1983: Hearing Before the Comm. on the Judiciary, 98th Cong. 1­–11 (1983).

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] H.R. Rep. No. 1073 at 7–8 (1984); 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) (2006).

[32] Walker, 720 F.3d at 708.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Walker, 720 F.3d at 709.

[36] Id. (Bright, J., concurring).

[37] Id.

[38] Walker, 720 F.3d at 709 n. 3 (Bright, J., concurring).

[39] See id. 

[40] Id. at 710.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Stimpson, supra note 14, at 102.

[44] Id.

[45] The 1982 bill reads: “shall… be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than fifteen (15) years nor more than life.” See S. Rep. No. 585, 97th Cong., at 3 (1982).

[46] The 1983 bill and current ACCA reads: “shall be… imprisoned not less than fifteen years.” See Armed Career Criminal Act of 1983: Hearing Before the Comm. on the Judiciary, 98th Cong. 1­–11 (1983).

[47] I.N.S. v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 442-43 (1987), (quoting Nachman Corp. v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, 446 U.S. 359, 392–393 (1980) (Stewart, J., dissenting)).

[48] See Chickasaw Nation v. United States, 534 U.S. 84, 92 (2001).

[49] Gulf Oil Corp. v. Copp Paving Company, Inc., 419 U.S. 186, 200 (1974).

[50] See S. Rep. No. 97-585, supra note 25.

[51] See 18 U.S.C § 924(e) (2006), supra note 1 (emphasis added).

[52] S. Rep. No. 585, 97th Cong., at 7 (1982).

[53] Armed Career Criminal Act of 1983: Hearing Before the Comm. on the Judiciary, 98th Cong. 29 (1983) (statement of William L. Cahalan, Prosecuting Attorney, Wayne County, Michigan) (emphasis added).

[54] See S. Rep. No. 97-585, supra note 25 (emphasis added).

[55] In a 1983 Senate Hearing, William Cahalan testified that in Wisconsin that year, 63% of the adult males convicted of a felony who had previously been convicted of another felony were placed on probation. In Florida that same year, 80% of those convicted of a felony were placed on probation; In Pennsylvania for those offenders who committed robbery with a firearm and had two prior robbery or burglary convictions, the average time of incarceration was less than four years, for those convicted and sentenced for burglary who had two or more prior burglary or robbery convictions, the average sentence was less than ten months. See Id. at 29.

[56] S. Rep. No. 585, 97th Cong., at 7 (1982).

[57] See 18 U.S.C § 924(e) (2006), supra note 1 (emphasis added).

* J.D. Candidate, 2014, Saint Louis University School of Law. Special thanks to Joyce LaFontain and Andrew Bouquet for their helpful comments and feedback on this case summary.