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Criminal Practice – Court-Martials Count for ACCA Status

U.S. v. Grant (Lawyers Weekly No. 14-01-0522, 13 pp.) (Floyd, J.) No. 13-4302, June 3, 2014; USDC at Columbia, S.C. (Currie, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: In sentencing defendant for possessing ammunition as a felon, the district court did not err in classifying him as an armed career criminal, based on his two general court-martial convictions for violent crimes; the 4th Circuit joins other federal appellate courts and holds that court-martial convictions count toward ACCA status.

The two violent felony convictions occurred in 1980, while defendant was in Korea serving in the Army. He first was convicted of assault by inflicting grievous bodily harm, in violation of UCMJ article 128, after he cut a fellow service member on the face with a razor blade. He next was convicted of kidnapping, in violation of UCMJ article 134, based on an incident during which he overtook two military officials who were transporting him while he was in custody for the assault. He wrestled an assault rifle from one of the officials, kidnapped the officials at gunpoint and forced them to drive him to another location. Defendant was dishonorably discharged from the Army and sentenced to eight years and nine months’ hard labor served at Fort Leavenworth, Ks. As an armed career criminal, he was sentenced to 212 months in prison on the ammunition charge.

In support of his argument that a general court-martial is not “any court” under the ACCA, defendant relies primarily on Small v. U.S., 544 U.S. 385 (2005), which excluded foreign courts from ACCA consideration. Defendant contends some of the same reasons that led the Supreme Court not to view a foreign court as “any court” under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) support not considering a general court-martial as “any court” under the ACCA.

Military courts draw their constitutional authority from Article I rather than Article III. A military officer must convene a general court-martial, over which a military officer presides. Substantially different rules of evidence and procedure apply in military trials.

Despite the contrasts between courts-martial and civilian courts, two of our sister circuits have held that courts-martial constitute courts under the ACCA and § 922(g)(1). In U.S. v. Martinez, 122 F.3d 421 (7th Cir. 1997), the court determined that a court-martial was a court for purposes of the ACCA, and in U.S. v. MacDonald, 922 F.2d 967 (9th Cir. 1993), the 9th Circuit also concluded that courts-martial qualify as courts under § 922(g)(1).

Because the Supreme Court indicated that “any court” has an ambiguous meaning, we may rely on other signals of congressional intent, such as the legislative history, to interpret the ACCA. Congress enacted the ACCA to increase the participation of the federal law enforcement system in efforts to curb armed, habitual criminals. Including court-martial convictions for violent felonies in the armed career criminal tabulation furthers Congress’s objective of identifying and deterring career offenders.

Although defendant correctly identifies several dissimilarities between courts-martial and civilian courts, these differences do not rise to the level of the contrasts between domestic and foreign courts that Small highlighted.

We agree with the district court’s decision to use defendant’s general court-martial convictions to classify him as an armed career criminal.

Judgment affirmed.

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