About 20 men who had been sent home from federal prison have been locked up again. Not because they violated their parole, but because of a court fight over whether they should be considered “armed career criminals,” reported The Marshall Project.
One of the 20 men, Michael Lemons, bought a hunting rifle from a neighbor, despite several burglary convictions when he was a teenager. Federal law says you can’t own a gun if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony. Authorities found the rifle while searching his home on an old warrant dating back to his time on probation in his early 20s.
All of Lemons’ burglaries were committed in the course of a single year more than a decade earlier, when he was homeless. He had not been in any trouble with the law since. Still, under a 1984 federal law, he was considered an “armed career criminal.”
People convicted of being a “felon in possession of a firearm” spend about five years in prison, on average. But the 1984 law requires an automatic 15-year sentence if someone with a record of three or more violent felonies gets caught with a gun. In the years since, the Supreme Court has struggled to define violent crime in the context of the Armed Career Criminal Act.
Critics point to mandatory minimum sentences like this one as an example of the excesses of the tough-on-crime 80s and 90s, which President Joe Biden has pledged to eliminate.
Lemons was a decade into his 15-year sentence when he caught a break. A federal appeals court said that the burglaries from Lemons’ youth did not count as violent after all, because the law against breaking into a home in Tennessee didn’t meet the federal definition of a “violent felony.” He and at least 30 other Tennesseeans could each apply to a judge to be resentenced without the mandatory 15-year minimum, and, in many cases, go home.
Then, in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed course: Those burglaries counted. Though federal prosecutors could have left the new sentences as is — and did, in some cases — they began filing court papers to have about two dozen of the men resentenced and sent back.
“Based upon his significant and repetitive prior felony conviction record, Lemons has demonstrated time and time again that he cannot be trusted,” D. Michael Dunavant, the U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted Lemons, told The Marshall Project. “If the rule of law is to have any meaning or legitimacy in our society, it must be enforced consistently, uniformly, and unapologetically.”
The Supreme Court’s reversal was a “profound and arbitrary legal flip flop,” wrote lawyers for Tony McClurg in one recently filed legal brief. McClurg, like Michael Lemons, committed a string of burglaries and thefts when he was young and homeless — “a 60-day splurge he went on when he was 21,” his lawyers said at his sentencing hearing. Later, when McClurg was in his 30s, police discovered guns stashed in his trailer. He was selling marijuana and he kept the guns for protection, McClurg said.
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