A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that two Ohio assault laws cannot always be considered “violent felonies” under federal guidelines often used by prosecutors to seek longer prison sentences against defendants with long criminal records.
The full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that not all convictions in Ohio state courts for aggravated assault and felonious assault can be considered a “violent-felony predicate” under U.S. sentencing guidelines.
A defendant’s history of committing violent offenses is frequently used by federal prosecutors to seek harsher sentences.
Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a defendant found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm can be considered a “career offender” and face a minimum of 15 years in federal prison if they have three or more previous state or federal convictions of violence. A range of sentences recommended to a judge by the U.S. sentencing guidelines is also often higher if a defendant has previous violent convictions.
However, since every state writes its laws differently, the definition of what is considered a violent felony has been a subject of debate and litigation in federal courts.
The 6th Circuit ruled Thursday that judges must look at the specific circumstances of the conviction to determine whether the action was violent. While some defendants convicted of felonious or aggravated assault in Ohio no doubt acted physically violent, some may have been charged for actions other than causing or threatening physical harm, U.S. Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder. Therefore, not everyone convicted of an aggravated or felonious assault have a “violent felony” conviction under federal law, the opinion says.
The full court was ruling on a case involving Cuyahoga Falls man Le’Ardrus Burris, who was one of 20 people charged and convicted for their roles in bringing large amounts of heroin and cocaine from New York and Akron. A jury found him guilty of possession with intent to distribute heroin and using a communication facility to facilitate drug trafficking.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin in 2016 found that Burris’ 2007 conviction for felonious assault helped him qualified for a career offender classification under the federal sentencing guidelines. A concurring opinion written by U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar noted that Burris’ conviction stemmed from him ramming his car into a police officer.
But despite having a higher recommended sentence, Gwin sentenced Burris, 35, to 7 1/2 years in federal prison.
Seven of the 18 judges who ruled partially disagreed with the ruling, saying Burris should be re-sentenced.
The full 6th Circuit heard oral arguments for Burris’ case in June. The same day, they conducted them for a similar case involving Brian Williams, an Ohio man sentenced in 2006 to 15 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to a felon in possession charge. Williams says a previous conviction for attempted felonious assault should not be considered a violent felony.
The court has not ruled on Williams’ case.