Judge calls for sentencing overhaul as Hixson man's prison term upheld, but not 'just'

photo Edward Lamar Young of Hixson

A federal appeals court judge on Thursday called for an overhaul of federal sentencing rules after upholding the 15-year prison term of a Hixson man convicted of possessing seven shotgun shells.

Lawmakers need to reconsider the Armed Career Criminal Act which "over-criminalizes" certain conduct by imposing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, said Jane Branstetter Stranch of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Stranch's comments came in a concurrence to an opinion by the appeals court upholding the sentence of Edward Lamar Young of Hixson, Tenn. Young pleaded guilty in January 2013 to being a felon in possession of ammunition after being found with the shells, which he inadvertently acquired while helping a neighbor dispose of her late husband's belongings.

"Precedent compels us to conclude that this sentence does not violate the Constitution," Stranch said. "But holding that a sentence is constitutional does not make the sentence just."

In an unsigned majority opinion, Stranch and judges Richard Allen Griffin and Helen White declined to address the fairness of Young's sentence, instead saying binding precedent required that it be upheld.

Young's defense now has the option to ask the full 6th Circuit to rehear the case or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I anticipate that we are not finished as far as whether we will continue the fight," said Young's attorney, Chris Varner of Chattanooga.

Police searched Young's home in October 2011 while investigating a series of burglaries in his neighborhood. Investigators found stolen tools and the shotgun shells, but no weapons. Young had criminal convictions from the early 1990s, with the most recent being in 1996.

Young said he had helped a neighbor move and sell some of her furniture after her husband died. She told him if he hauled the furniture to a flea market, she would split with him whatever it sold for. He did that, but kept a chest of drawers at his home.

Later, he went through it and found the shells. He put them away so his kids wouldn't come upon them, with the intention of returning them to the woman or just throwing them away.

Young later told prosecutors he was unaware that prior burglary convictions barred him from having the ammunition.

"He acquired the shotgun shells passively, he kept them without any criminal motive, and his knowledge extended only to his possession and not to its illegality," the judges wrote in the majority opinion. "Young's Achilles heel, however, is his recidivism."

The judges concluded that, while the sentence may seem extreme in theory, precedent requires the court to uphold the sentence because it isn't "grossly disproportionate" when Young's criminal history is taken into account.

Mandatory minimums have been criticized in recent years by political figures and in editorials in newspapers across the country as being too harsh and possibly a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Much of the verbal attack has come in relation to drug offenses. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has pushed for prosecutors to avoid activating mandatory minimum sentences when charging low-level drug crimes.

But, gun cases are rarely mentioned during the discussions.

Douglas Berman, a law professor with the Moritz School of Law at Ohio State University, who filed a friend of the court brief and argued before the judges in Young's case, said this application of the Armed Career Criminal Act makes it appear as if Young is being punished for behavior he hasn't been convicted of. The court looked at the most recent burglaries and Young's criminal history and cited it as a reason to find the sentence not completely unreasonable, Berman said.

"I really think the court is influenced by the fact that the possession was found out while he was being investigated for other possible crimes," Berman said. "That's not what he's being sentenced for."

Stranch noted that, in Tennessee, it isn't a state crime for Young to have the shells. Stranch said the Armed Career Criminal's Act, passed into law in 1984 and amended since, could withstand changes that allow sentences to be varied based on the type of weapon or ammunition possessed, indications of future risk to society and the remoteness of past crimes.

"While the means Congress has selected must be accepted, this case once again reveals the need for, at minimum, a more sensible and targeted ACCA, one that would continue to remove from society those who most likely to cause harm while allowing less severe sentences for those who, like Young, do not post that risk," Stranch said.