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Are enhanced sentences for gang members constitutional?

Earlier this month, the Criminal Appeals Court here in Tennessee handed down an important decision in a case examining the constitutionality of an enhanced sentencing statute targeting gang members.

The statute in question, passed by the General Assembly back in 2012, essentially declares that gang members who are convicted of certain violent crimes are automatically subject to an increased sentencing range, meaning more years behind bars.

How did the statute end up before the criminal appeals court?

Three men were convicted of attempted second-degree murder in connection with the severe beating of a man who prosecutors claimed was being expelled from a street gang. Under the aforementioned statute, the three men were given enhanced sentences ranging from 23 to 40 years. They later appealed both their convictions and their sentences.

What exactly did the criminal appeals court hold?

The court struck down the enhanced sentencing provision of the statute, finding that instead of authorizing longer sentences for gang members for committing gang-related offenses, which is constitutional, it instead authorizes longer sentences for gang members even if the crime for which they are being punished had nothing to do with their gang.

This, they held, was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

"[The statute] fails to even obtusely target gang-related criminal activity, it lacks a reasonable relationship to achieving the legitimate legislative purpose of deterring criminal gang activity and therefore violates the principles of substantive due process," reads the 57-page opinion.

The convictions of the three men were upheld, but the lower court was instructed to vacate the enhanced sentences handed down under the statute.

What happens next?

The Office of the Tennessee Attorney General could appeal the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court, but there is no guarantee that the state's high court would even agree to review the case. Indeed, this is a distinct possibility given that the Florida Supreme Court struck down a similar law for identical reasons back in 1999.

Will this ruling affect prior convictions?

While the real impact of this ruling has yet to be seen, experts are indicating that it could result in resentencing in hundreds of cases.

Stay tuned for updates …

If you are under investigation or have been charged with any sort of violent offense, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

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Mathis, Bates & Klinghard PLLC
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