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Fractured 4th Circuit vacates enhanced sentence

The case of North Carolina defendant Torrell Vann has spawned a weighty decision by a fractured 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, released yesterday.

After a January 2008 “domestic altercation,” Vann was arrested and charged with handgun possession in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924. The indictment also charged three prior convictions that allegedly made Vann eligible for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which meant a sentence of 15 years to life, instead of the 10 years maximum he would have served on the gun conviction.

Vann’s three priors were under North Carolina’s Indecent Liberties Statute. The district court agreed with the government Vann was ACCA-eligible and sentenced Vann to 15 years. A divided 4th Circuit panel affirmed, but the appellate court reheard the case en banc.

The short answer to “what happened next” is that the en banc court vacated the district court’s enhanced sentence and remanded the case. The long answer involves a lot of discussion and a close parsing of the language of charging documents. We defer to a true sentencing junkie, law professor Douglas A. Berman of The Ohio State University, who blogs on “Sentencing Law and Policy.”

Headlining the Vann case as “100 pages of ACCA’s application to indecent liberties,” Berman says: “If you cannot get enough of appellate litigation over intricate issues in the definition of a crime of violence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act — and, really, who can? — then you are going to adore the work of the en banc Fourth Circuit today.”

A summary of the disposition and the opinions in Vann “provides a small taste of the fun the case portends,” Berman predicts.

Here’s the 4th Circuit’s announcement of its decision: “Vacated and remanded by published opinion. A per curiam opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judges Motz, King, Gregory, Agee, Davis, Keenan, Wynn, and Diaz joined, was issued on behalf of the en banc majority. Judge King wrote a concurring opinion, in which Judges Motz, Gregory, and Davis joined. Judge Agee wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, concurring in the en banc majority opinion, and concurring in the opinion of Judge Keenan. Judge Davis wrote a concurring opinion. Judge Keenan wrote a concurring opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judges Agee, Wynn, and Diaz joined. Judge Wilkinson wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment. Judge Niemeyer wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Judge Shedd joined.”

The full opinion in U.S. v. Vann is here.
By Deborah Elkins

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