In 1996, Tennessee resident Edward Young was released from prison. He had spent the last several years locked up for a number of different burglary convictions.
Now a free man, Young vowed to start living a legal life, and for 15 years, Young lived a clean life. He even married during that time, and he now has four kids.
But in 2011, Young slipped up. He was caught robbing tools, tires and weightlifting equipment from cars and a warehouse. To make matters worse, surveillance video shows Young brought his son with him when he stole the items.
One week after the burglaries, police showed up at Young’s door. They said he was a suspect in the theft of the merchandise from the week before, and they needed to search his house.
Sure enough, the police found all of the missing items in Young’s home. But police found something in Young’s home that was not stolen which, unbeknownst to Young, would have far more devastating consequences than anything he had stolen: shotgun shells.
Weeks before the police came to his home, Young had helped and old widow across the street sell excess furniture from her house. The woman’s husband was a packrat, she said, and she needed help cleaning out his accumulated clutter. Young and the woman agreed that if Young took some of her furniture to the local flea market, she would split whatever it sold for with him.
Not all of the furniture sold, and Young kept a chest of drawers at his house. One day, Young found a case of shotgun shells in the drawers. He did not think much of them, considering that he did not own a gun. So Young hid the shells so that his children would not find them and he forgot all about them. The shells were untouched until the police found them while searching Young’s home.
Unfortunately, Young did not realize that, as a convicted felon, federal law forbids him from owning both firearms and ammunition. By being caught with ammunition, Young became classified as an Armed Career Criminal in accordance with the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).
Established in 1984, the ACCA greatly increases prison sentences for felons who commit crimes either with or involving firearms if the offender has been convicted of certain crimes three or more times. Young’s burglary convictions meet the requirement of three of more convictions, and his illegal possession of shotgun shells meet the requirement of a crime involving a firearm.
In accordance with the ACCA, Young now must spend a minimum of 15 years in prison. Presiding Judge Curtis Collier says that although the sentencing is harsh, the law leaves him no room for leniency.
"This is a case where the Congress of the United States has instructed federal district judges like myself to impose a sentence of at least 180 months, that is, 15 years," Collier said. "This sentence is not so much a punishment for the present crime as it is a punishment for your history of crimes."
Three weeks after the sentencing, the court dismissed the latest burglary charge against Young, but this has had little bearing on Young’s prison sentence. His past crimes are still enough to categorize him as an Armed Career Criminal under the ACCA.
Ohio State Law professor Doug Berman recently spoke on Young’s case.
"Unlike what we think happens too much — defendants get off on a technicality — the government is kind of throwing the book at this guy over a technicality," he said.
The only option available to Young, now in prison, is to wait. Appealing his sentence is likely a waste of time, as other appeals of harsh sentences under the ACCA have gone nowhere. There is currently legislation being drafted in Tennessee to override the sentencing requirements from the ACCA, but it could be years until the legislation is drafted into law.
Young’s attorney, Chris Varner, is just as shocked at Young’s sentencing as you likely are.
“I don't think there's anything like it at all,” he said. “Everything went wrong here ... This is not who we are, we do not do this as a nation.”
Young’s wife, Stacey, agrees.
“I don't think he should have 15 years for seven shotgun shells," she said. “I think it's crazy.”