In line with the government, Supreme Court ratifies ACCA 'three strikes' law for weapons possession with prior drug convictions

A conservative majority on the court also had the support of Justice Sotomayor in ruling that convictions made under laws no longer in effect still count as a "strike."

The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) voted this Thursday in favor of the federal government and approved the application of a "three strikes" law on weapons possession with a history of serious drug-related crimes. Thus, a state drug conviction can result in a mandatory 15-year sentence under the Armed Criminals Act 1984 (ACCA) if the drug is federally scheduled at the time of conviction.

The Armed Criminals Act 1984 (ACCA) provides for penalties of at least 15 years in prison for those with three violent felony convictions or "a felony drug offense" who are found guilty of an illegal weapons offense, since federal law prohibits convicted felons from possessing firearms.

After a vote that ended with six votes in favor and three against, the Supreme Court supports the federal government with its resolution on Brown v. United States. The voting by the SCOTUS judges was not based on progressive or conservative affiliations, as a left-leaning judge voted with the right-leaning majority, and a conservative sided with those against it. Justice Samuel Alito led the majority, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Conviction by amended laws

ACCA has been the subject of intense debates and criminal appeals such as Brown v. United States, mainly in case the laws in force when the accused committed the first three crimes that articulate the three strikes law should be taken into account, or whether to consider the laws in effect at the time the defendant commits their last crime, in this case that of possessing weapons as a convicted felon and therefore invoking a minimum of 15 years in prison.

With the latest resolution of the SCOTUS, the laws that will be considered are those in force at the time of the conviction and not at the time of the third strike. This created controversy because the legislation on drug-related crimes is constantly modified at both the federal and state levels, both to be more severe and to lighten penalties.

Marijuana-related convictions

In the case of the ruling that SCOTUS affirmed, the defendant, Justin Rashaad Brown, was convicted in the state of Pennsylvania under the state's law for use and possession of marijuana, even though the federal regulations on marijuana changed between the time he was first convicted and the time he was convicted of gun possession.

Commenting on the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: "A prior drug conviction for an offense punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment augurs a risk of future dangerousness  even if the drug is no longer considered dangerous," the judge noted. "That is because the conviction reveals that the defendant previously engaged in illegal conduct that created a dangerous risk of violence, either with law enforcement or with others operating in the same illegal field. If left at large, such defendants present a serious risk to public safety."