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Supreme Court rules on mandatory sentencing law

New Jersey individuals with felonies on their record may be affected by a June 26 Supreme Court decision that dealt with the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984. The justices ruled 8-1 that a provision of the federal law was so vague that it was unconstitutional, with Justice Alito dissenting.

According to the law, a third violent felony brought a mandatory 15-year sentence. Past felonies could be reclassified as violent even though a violent act may not have occurred. The problem the justices had with the law was that what constituted a violent felony was ill-defined. This led to an inconsistency in how the law was applied. Sometimes, individuals would opt for a plea bargain because it was not possible to predict whether certain felonies would be considered violent or not. The law allowed offenses that could be considered to have the potential of violence to fall under its coverage.

Lower-court judges have named some offenses that are considered violent felonies, and they include attempted kidnapping and attempted rape. Possession of a sawed-off shotgun, the felony that the defendant was convicted of in this case, was one of the offenses not clearly spelled out. There is also an increasing push toward removing mandatory sentencing that leads to jail overcrowding and removes judges' abilities to choose sentencing lengths, although this was not a factor in the Supreme Court decision.

Individuals who are facing felony charges and who may have been considering a plea negotiation due to this law may wish to change their defense strategy. They, as well as others who have been charged with felony offenses since the recent Supreme Court decision, may want to discuss their cases with an attorney. In some cases, a plea bargain may still be the best choice.

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