766 F.3d 621 (6th Cir. 2014), 13-5714, United States v. Young

Docket Nº:13-5714
Citation:766 F.3d 621
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM.
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. EDWARD L. YOUNG, Defendant-Appellant
Attorney:Douglas A. Berman, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY MORITZ COLLEGE OF LAW, Columbus, Ohio, for Amicus Curiae. Christopher T. Varner, EVANS HARRISON HACKETT PLLC, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant. Christopher D. Poole, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee. Christophe...
Judge Panel:Before: GRIFFIN, WHITE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges. The court delivered a PER CURIAM opinion. STRANCH, Circuit Judge, concurring.
Case Date:September 11, 2014
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
SUMMARY

Young helped a neighbor sort and sell her late husband’s possessions, including a box of seven shotgun shells, which he stored in a drawer where they would be safe from his children. Young had been convicted of several burglary-related offenses, 1990-1992, so it was a crime for him to possess ammunition. He was unaware of this legal disability. Police later visited Young’s home, investigating... (see full summary)

 
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Page 621

766 F.3d 621 (6th Cir. 2014)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

EDWARD L. YOUNG, Defendant-Appellant

No. 13-5714

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 11, 2014

Argued March 13, 2014

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee of Chattanooga. No. 1:12-cr-00045--Curtis L. Collier, Chief District Judge.

ARGUED:

Douglas A. Berman, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY MORITZ COLLEGE OF LAW, Columbus, Ohio, for Amicus Curiae.

Christopher T. Varner, EVANS HARRISON HACKETT PLLC, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Christopher D. Poole, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Christopher T. Varner, EVANS HARRISON HACKETT PLLC, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Christopher D. Poole, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Douglas A. Berman, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY MORITZ COLLEGE OF LAW, Columbus, Ohio, Candace C. Crouse, PINALES STACHLER YOUNG BURRELL & CROUSE CO., L.P.A., Cincinnati, Ohio for Amicus Curiae.

Before: GRIFFIN, WHITE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges. The court delivered a PER CURIAM opinion.

OPINION

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PER CURIAM.

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer. He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband's possessions. When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms--resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier--extended to ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice. Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young's sentence.

I. BACKGROUND

In 2010 or 2011, Edward Young helped a neighbor sort and sell her late husband's possessions. When he discovered a box of seven shotgun shells in the collection, he stored the shells in a drawer where they would be safe from his four children. Because Young had previously been convicted of a number of felonies, all burglary-related offenses between 1990 and 1992, it was a crime for him to possess ammunition. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He was unaware of this legal disability.

Police officers later showed up on Young's doorstep investigating recent burglaries at an auto repair shop and a storage building. During the consent search, officers found several items reported stolen, though it is unclear whether the items were associated with the recent burglaries. They also found the box of seven shotgun shells in a drawer, which Young readily admitted to possessing.

The government charged Young with a single count of being a felon in possession of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The statute carries a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who, like Young, has at least three prior felony convictions. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1).1

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Young pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition and mounted a constitutional challenge at sentencing. According to him, a fifteen-year ACCA mandatory minimum sentence, as applied to him, would violate the Eighth Amendment because it is grossly disproportionate to the offense he committed, an offense of very low culpability or risk of harm. For support, he argued that his advisory Guidelines range, absent the ACCA and associated armed career criminal guideline, would have been only 10-16 months. He also argued that the ACCA, as applied to him, would violate the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause because he did not have fair notice of the prohibition against felons possessing ammunition.

The district court expressed concern about the fairness of the punishment but determined that it had no discretion in sentencing. Young received the mandatory fifteen-year sentence, and now appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

We review these constitutional challenges to Young's sentence de novo. United States v. Moore, 643 F.3d 451, 454 (6th Cir. 2011).

A. Eighth Amendment

Young argues that the ACCA, as applied to him, violates the Eighth Amendment because it imposes on him a harsh sentence--one normally reserved for far more dangerous criminals--for possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer, a crime he describes as a mere technical violation of the statute. Comparing his crime to overtime parking, which could not constitutionally be punishable by life imprisonment, see Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 288, 100 S.Ct. 1133, 63 L.Ed.2d 382 (1980), he argues that a mandatory fifteen years is grossly disproportionate under the circumstances.

The government asks that we simply defer to the legislative mandate in the ACCA, which plainly sweeps Young's possession of shotgun shells into the same punishment category as the possession of bombs, missiles, or automatic weapons. See 18 U.S.C. § § 921(a)(3)-(4), 922(g)(1), 924(e)(1). It is true that substantial deference is due to legislative sentencing schemes. Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 30, 123 S.Ct. 1179, 155 L.Ed.2d 108 (2003) (noting that " rational legislative judgment[s] [are] entitled to deference" ); Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 998-99, 1001, 111 S.Ct. 2680, 115 L.Ed.2d 836 (1991) (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) (discussing the " primacy of the legislature" in making penological judgments); Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 290, 103 S.Ct. 3001, 77 L.Ed.2d 637 (1983) (" Reviewing courts . . . should grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess . . . in sentencing convicted criminals." ). Amicus counsel suggests that because these cases all involved a review of state sentences, and because the framers originally intended to limit the actions of Congress and not the states, less deference is due to Congress than to state legislatures. See generally Michael J. Zydney Mannheimer, Cruel and Unusual Federal Punishments, 98 Iowa L. Rev. 69, 69-131 (2012) (arguing that federal sentences

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should be reviewed by comparing them to state sentences rather than giving them the same deference given to states out of federalism concerns); John F. Stinneford, Rethinking Proportionality Under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, 97 Va. L. Rev. 899, 943-44 (2011) (explaining that the Bill of Rights was adopted to require the new federal government to recognize the fundamental common law rights of citizens, particularly relating to criminal rights). Cf. Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 666, 82 S.Ct. 1417, 8 L.Ed.2d 758 (1962) (applying the Eighth Amendment to the states for the first time, through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment); Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 462, 67 S.Ct. 374, 91 L.Ed. 422 (1947) (assuming without deciding that the Eighth Amendment is applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment). Whether amicus counsel is correct as to the amount of deference owed to Congress as compared to the states, it is correct that Congressional intent is not the end of the analysis of a constitutional claim. See, e.g., Rummel, 445 U.S. at 284 (" Texas is entitled to make its own judgments as to [criminal sentencing]," subject to the strictures of the Eighth Amendment). A legislative mandate does not trump the Constitution.

To determine whether a non-capital sentence falls outside the bounds of the Eighth Amendment's " evolving standards of decency," Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 58, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted), this court is instructed to use what has become known as the " narrow proportionality principle," id. at 59-60 (internal quotation marks omitted). Under this principle, " 'punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense,'" id. at 59 (quoting Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367, 30 S.Ct. 544, 54 L.Ed. 793 (1910)), but the proportionality required " 'forbids only extreme sentences that are " grossly disproportionate" to the crime,'" id. at 60 (quoting Harmelin, 501 U.S. at 997, 1000-01 (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment)).

The test is rarely met. Cf. Ewing, 538 U.S. at 22 (" [S]uccessful challenges to the proportionality of particular sentences should be exceedingly rare." (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Supreme Court has overturned only a small number of non-capital sentences on Eighth Amendment grounds. In 1910, the Court struck down a sentence of twelve years' imprisonment, in chains and at hard and painful labor, for falsifying a public document. Weems, 217 U.S. at 357, 365-67, 381. The Court considered the punishment degrading and harsh as compared to an offense that could be committed " though he gain nothing and injure nobody." Id. at 365-66. Not until over seventy years later did the Court hold unconstitutional another sentence: life without parole for passing a $100 bad check based on the defendant's multiple prior convictions. Solem, 463 U.S. at 296-97, 303. The Court observed that the sentence, generally reserved for far more serious offenses, was grossly disproportionate to the crime, " one of the most passive felonies a person could commit," involving no violence or threat of violence. Id. at 296-99, 303 (internal quotation marks omitted). In reaching this decision, the Court noted...

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