Monday, February 23, 2009

Court Affirmed "3 Strikes" Sentence

US v. Thompson: Thompson was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to life in prison under the "three strikes" law, 18 USC 3559(c). The "strikes" in question are convictions for a "serious violent felony." If the defendant has two prior "strikes" and the current conviction is a "serious violent felony," a life sentence is mandatory. However, there is a "safety valve" provision for robbery convictions, allowing the defendant to escape a life sentence if he can prove by clear and convincing evidence that he did not use or threaten to use a dangerous weapon during the robbery.

Thompson admitted that he had two prior strikes, but argued that the current robbery conviction qualified for the safety valve. He also argued that increasing his statutory maximum sentence from 20 years to life on the basis of judicial factfinding violated his constitutional rights.

Both the district court and the Fourth Circuit rejected Thompson's arguments. On the facts of the case, the Fourth Circuit recounted the testimony of five witnesses who testified before the district court. While none of the witnesses could put a gun in Thompson's hand, two testified that he made threats involving shooting and one testified being scared for her life. Given that record, there was no clear error in the district court's determination that Thompson threatened to use a dangerous weapon. On the constitutional issue, the Fourth Circuit concluded there was no violation because the judicial factfinding at sentencing did not increase Thompson's sentence. No constitutional issue is present when the sentencing court, upon the finding of certain facts, can impose a lower sentence.

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