A federal appeals court has upheld the mandatory minimum 15- year sentence handed to a three-time criminal, rejecting his claim that only two of his prior convictions should have counted against him.
The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 requires a sentence of at least 15 years for anyone who illegally traffics in weapons after they have already been convicted of three violent felonies.
Sidney R. Coleman conceded that he had been convicted in Baltimore for robbery in 1983 and attempted murder in 1990. But he argued that his 1988 conviction for common-law assault should not have been counted as a violent felony when he was sentenced for a weapons violation in 1996.
But a majority of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said Monday that Coleman’s 1988 crime was a crime of violence — even though he only pleaded guilty to common-law assault.
Technically, common-law assault is not a “violent felony,” the court said. But it noted that charging documents from the 1988 crime said that Coleman had been accused of pointing a gun at a police officer.
The appeals court said the lower court was correct in using the charging documents to determine that Coleman had committed a crime that “involved the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against the victim.” It was right to sentence him as “an armed career criminal,” the appeals court ruled.
An official in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore said Monday’s ruling is important because it will resolve questions that often come up in assault cases in Maryland.
“We’re pleased that the 4th Circuit affirmed the conviction,” said Stephen Schenning, first assistant to the U.S. Attorney.
But Coleman’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender James Wyda, said his client only pleaded guilty to common-law assault, which does not require the threat or use of force.
The federal district court in Baltimore was wrong to rely on the charging documents to determine otherwise, said Wyda. He said charging papers are not reliable and can be exaggerated.
Two appeals court judges split from the majority opinion.
The dissent, written by Judge H. Emory Widener, argued that the 1988 “common-law assault conviction should not be a violent felony conviction” because Coleman’s sentence for that crime was less than two years.
Coleman was sentenced to 18 months for the 1988 crime and he only had to serve six months.
But the majority of the appeals court said that Coleman’s assault conviction was punishable by a prison term of more than two years, even though his actual sentence was less than that.
It said the determining factor is “whether the offense `is punishable’ by a term … of greater than two years, not whether the offense `was punished’ by such a term.”
Wyda said he is “very disappointed for Mr. Coleman,” who is currently serving his sentence and is not eligible for parole.