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December 10, 2018

SCOTUS rules unanimously that ACCA predicates can include all sorts of burglary

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its first full sentencing opinion of the Term, and the opinion in yet another Armed Career Criminal Act dispute over statutory interpretation is not all that interesting or all that surprising.  Justice Breyer wrote a short opinion for a unanimous court in US v. Stitt, No. 17-765 (S. Ct. Dec. 10, 2018) (available here), and it gets started this way:

The Armed Career Criminal Act requires a federal sentencing judge to impose upon certain persons convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm a 15-year minimum prison term.  The judge is to impose that special sentence if the offender also has three prior convictions for certain violent or drug-related crimes.  18 U. S. C. §924(e).  Those prior convictions include convictions for “burglary.” §924(e)(2)(B)(ii).  And the question here is whether the statutory term “burglary” includes burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation.  We hold that it does.

And here are a few paragraphs from the opinion's substantive discussion:

The word “burglary,” like the word “crime” itself, is ambiguous.  It might refer to a kind of crime, a generic crime, as set forth in a statute (“a burglary consists of behavior that . . . ”), or it might refer to the way in which an individual offender acted on a particular occasion (“on January 25, Jones committed a burglary on Oak Street in South San Francisco”).  We have held that the words in the Armed Career Criminal Act do the first.  Accordingly, we have held that the Act requires us to evaluate a prior state conviction “in terms of how the law defines the offense and not in terms of how an individual offender might have committed it on a particular occasion.”  Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 141 (2008). A prior state conviction, we have said, does not qualify as generic burglary under the Act where “the elements of [the relevant state statute] are broader than those of generic burglary.” Mathis v. United States, 579 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 19).  The case in which we first adopted this “categorical approach” is Taylor v. United States, 495 U. S. 575 (1990).  That case, which specifically considered the statutory term “burglary,” governs here and determines the outcome.

In Taylor, we did more than hold that the word “burglary” refers to a kind of generic crime rather than to the defendant’s behavior on a particular occasion.  We also explained, after examining the Act’s history and purpose, that Congress intended a “uniform definition of burglary [to] be applied to all cases in which the Government seeks” an enhanced sentence under the Act.  Id., at 580–592.  We held that this uniform definition includes “at least the ‘classic’ common-law definition,” namely, breaking and entering a dwelling at night with intent to commit a felony.  Id., at 593.  But we added that it must include more.  The classic definition, by excluding all places other than dwellings, we said, has “little relevance to modern law enforcement concerns.” Ibid. Perhaps for that reason, by the time the Act was passed in 1986, most States had expanded the meaning of burglary to include “structures other than dwellings.” Ibid. (citing W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law §§8.13(a)–(f) (1986)).

For a small number of federal defendants facing ACCA's long mandatory minimum based on a quirky prior crime, this ruling is very important and consequential.  For others, not much too see here.

December 10, 2018 at 11:37 AM | Permalink

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