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The Federal “THREE STRIKES” Law

The Federal “Three Strikes” Law was enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The “Three Strikes” Law requires enhancement of sentencing for a defendant who has been convicted of two prior felonies.

The “Three Strikes” Law provides that a defendant will receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison if he or she is convicted in federal court of a serious violent felony and if he or she has had two or more prior convictions in federal or state courts. One of the prior convictions must be for a serious violent felony. The other prior conviction may be for a serious drug offense.

Under the “Three Strikes” Law, a serious violent felony includes murder, manslaughter, sex offenses, kidnapping, robbery, and any offense that includes the use of force or a significant risk of force and that is punishable by 10 or more years in prison. The “Three Strikes” Law also includes unarmed robbery if the robbery involved a threat regarding the use of a firearm or any other dangerous weapon or if the robbery resulted in death or serious bodily injury of another person. If the federal government seeks to enhance a defendant’s sentence as a result of a prior unarmed robbery, the defendant has the burden of proving that the robbery did not involve a threat regarding the use of a firearm or another dangerous weapon and did not involve the death or serious bodily injury of another person. A serious violent felony does not include the offense of arson if the defendant proves that the arson did not pose any threat to human life and if the defendant proves that he or she reasonably believed that the arson posed no threat to human life.

A serious drug offense under the “Three Strikes” Law includes drug offenses involving continuing criminal enterprises, drug offenses involving the distribution, manufacture, or possession with intent to distribute large quantities of a controlled substance, or similar drug offenses under state law.

Under the “Three Strikes” Law, each offense that is used, except the first offense, must have been committed after a conviction for a prior serious violent felony or serious drug offense. The prior convictions must also be final convictions.

Sentencing under the “Three Strikes” Law is triggered when a prosecutor files a notice with a trial court prior to trial or a plea of guilty in accordance with the statute. The notice must set forth the prior convictions that will be used for the enhanced sentencing. The prosecutor must provide a defendant or his or her attorney with a copy of the notice.

The “Three Strikes” Law does not apply to persons who are subject to the jurisdiction of a Native American tribal government for offenses that are committed on a Native American reservation unless the tribal government has provided that the statute will take effect.

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