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February 26, 2020

SCOTUS unanimously rejects effort to narrow ACCA-predicate drug crimes in Shular

Much of the never-ending Armed Career Criminal Act litigation concerns the reach of ACCA's "violent felony" definitions as predicate priors for applying the statute's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term.  But the Supreme Court addressed unanimously today in Shular v. United States, No. 18–6662 (S. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (available here), the reach of the ACCA predicate provision defining "serious drug offense."  And while defendants have often prevailed on challenges to broad application of "violent felony," the unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg in Shular turns away a defense effort to limit what qualifies as a "serious drug felony."  Here is the full start to the Court's opinion:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e), mandates a 15-year minimum sentence of imprisonment for certain defendants with prior convictions for a “serious drug offense.”  A state offense ranks as a “serious drug offense” only if it “involv[es] manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.” §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).  This case concerns the methodology courts use to apply that definition.

While the parties agree that a court should look to the state offense’s elements, they disagree over what the court should measure those elements against.  In the Government’s view, the court should ask whether those elements involve the conduct identified in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii) — namely, “manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.”  Petitioner Eddie Lee Shular, however, contends that the terms employed in the statute identify not conduct, but offenses.  In his view, those terms are shorthand for the elements of the offenses as commonly understood.  According to Shular, the court must first identify the elements of the “generic” offense, then ask whether the elements of the state offense match those of the generic crime.

Under the approach he advances, Shular argues, his sentence is not subject to ACCA enhancement.  The generic offenses named in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii), as Shular understands them, include a mens rea element of knowledge that the substance is illicit.  He emphasizes that his prior convictions were for state offenses that do not make knowledge of the substance’s illegality an element of the offense; the state offenses, he therefore maintains, do not match the generic offenses in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).

The question presented: Does §924(e)(2)(A)(ii)’s “serious drug offense” definition call for a comparison to a generic offense?  We hold it does not.  The “serious drug offense” definition requires only that the state offense involve the conduct specified in the federal statute; it does not require that the state offense match certain generic offenses.

Even for hard-core ACCA fans (and you know who you are), there does not seem to be all that much of great significance in Shular (beyond a reminder that rulings for prosecutors can still sometimes garner unanimity from this Court).  There is an intriguing coda to the Shular ruling in the form of a three-page concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh in order to "elaborate on why the rule of lenity does not apply here."  In his elaboration, Justice Kavanaugh seems mostly just to reiterate basic doctrinal statements about the rule of lenity from past SCOTUS cases, so I am not quite sure what the separate opinion was designed to achieve (beyond giving the Justice an excuse to cite his own Harvard Law Review article: "Kavanaugh, Fixing Statutory Interpretation, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 2118 (2016)).

February 26, 2020 at 01:35 PM | Permalink

Comments

And the violent felony prong would have been so much simpler if SCOTUS had followed this course when originally faced with the question.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 27, 2020 4:48:17 PM

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