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United States v. Hunter, No. 12-5035

Date Decided: November 13, 2013

In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits life imprisonment without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. Criminal defendant, Jimmy Hunter claimed that Miller similarly prohibited sentencing enhancements based on felonies he committed as a juvenile. The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

At age thirty-three, Hunter sold a gun and ammunition to a confidential FBI informant. Defendant was indicted and pled guilty to knowingly possessing a firearm after a felony conviction. This crime typically carries a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. However, the probation officer recommended that Hunter receive a fifteen-year sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act because he had more than three previous violent felony convictions. In fact, Hunter had five prior violent felony convictions: two of the felonies occurred when Hunter was fifteen, two occurred at age seventeen, and a fifth felony occurred when Hunter was twenty-five. Hunter argued that, under Miller, the juvenile convictions could not support the sentencing enhancement. The district court judge disagreed and sentenced Hunter to seventeen years’ imprisonment.

On appeal, Hunter argued that the sentencing enhancement violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Fourth Circuit disagreed. The court explained that in Miller and other cases examining sentencing of juveniles, the Supreme Court emphasizes that children receive more lenient treatment because of their “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” While the defendants in Miller received life imprisonment for a murder committed at age fourteen, in Hunter’s case, the defendant faced punishment for a crime he committed at age thirty-three, an age exceeding concerns about maturity and prospects for reform. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that a sentencing enhancement is not punishment for past crimes. Instead, it is an aggravated offense because it is a repetitive one. Additionally, other circuits agree that juvenile offenses can properly serve as grounds for a sentencing enhancement for a post-majority conviction. The Fourth Circuit concluded by reinforcing that Hunter was “no juvenile when he committed the crime for which he was sentenced here” and thus, the Eighth Amendment concerns in Miller did not apply to Hunter’s present conviction.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert