The Armed Career Criminal Act compares only “elements” of offenses to determine whether a prior conviction qualifies for an enhanced sentence, even when the state law at issue lists alternative means of satisfying one or more elements, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 23 in Mathis v. United States. But with five justices questioning the result, either in whole or part, the decision will not be the last word on interpreting ACCA. 

ACCA History

 ACCA, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(e), mandates an enhanced sentence for defendants who have three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” which is defined to include any state or federal felony that “is burglary, arson, or extortion.”
The Court had previously held that, in listing these crimes, Congress intended only the “generic versions” of the offenses, meaning the offense as commonly understood.  For “burglary,” that means a crime containing the elements of unlawful entry into a building or structure with the intent to commit a crime.  ACCA does not include all variants of an offense.
Under the Court’s prior cases, a prior crime qualifies as an ACCA predicate if its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense.  To determine if a prior crime is generic burglary – or other listed crime – courts must use the “categorical approach,” which focusses solely on whether the elements of the prior crime of conviction match the elements of generic burglary.  The particular facts of the prior crime are not considered. 

When statutes list elements in the alternative, courts must use a “modified categorical approach,” which allows consideration of a limited class of documents from the prior crime to determine what crime, with what elements, a defendant was convicted of.  For example, if a state law criminalizes lawful or unlawful entry with intent to steal, so as to create two different offenses with more serious penalties for unlawful entry, courts may review limited documents to determine if the prior crime involved lawful or unlawful entry.  If unlawful, the prior conviction matches generic burglary and counts as an ACCA predicate, but if lawful, the prior conviction does not count.


The issue in Mathis involved an alternatively-phrased statute that did not list multiple elements disjunctively, but instead listed various factual means of committing a single element.

Richard Mathis previously had been convicted under an Iowa burglary statute that covered more conduct that generic burglary.  Generic burglary covers only entry into a building or other structure.  The Iowa burglary law also covered entry into a vehicle, boat or airplane.  Iowa courts had held that the statute did not create alternative elements, but only alternative methods of committing the single crime of burglary, so that a jury need not agree on which of the listed locations was involved.

The District Court used a modified categorical approach, and imposed the ACCA enhancement on Mathis after inspecting records of his Iowa conviction and determining that he had burgled structures, rather than vehicles, boats or planes.

he Eighth Circuit affirmed.


The Supreme Court reversed, and held that Mathis’ prior offense did not qualify under ACCA because the prior offense’s elements were broader than those of generic burglary.

“[A] state crime cannot qualify as an ACCA predicate if its elements are broader than those of a listed generic offense,” the Court explained.  “How a given defendant actually perpetrated the crime … makes no difference; even if his conduct fits within the generic offense, the mismatch of the elements saves the defendant from an ACCA sentence.”
These principles apply “regardless of whether a statute omits or instead specifies alternative possible means of commission,” the Court said.  “The itemized construction gives a sentencing court no special warrant to explore the facts of an offense, rather than to determine the crime’s elements and compare them with the generic definitions.”

ACCA requires an “elements-only” inquiry because its text “favors that approach,” and allowing a sentencing judge to find facts could run astray of the Sixth Amendment, which requires a jury, not a judge, find facts necessary to increase punishment, except for the “simple fact” of a prior conviction, the Court said.

“For these reasons, the court below erred in applying the modified categorical approach to determine the means by which Mathis committed his prior crimes,” the Court held.

Going forward, the “first task for a sentencing court faced with an alternatively phrased statute is thus to determine whether its listed items are elements or means,” the Court said.  “If they are elements, the court should do what we have previously approved:  review the record materials to discover which of the enumerated alternatives played a part in the defendant’s prior conviction, and then compare that element (along with all others) to those of the generic crime.”

“But if instead they are means, the court has no call to decide which of the statute alternatives was at issue in earlier prosecutions,” the Court said.  “Given ACCA’s indifference to how a defendant actually committed a prior offense, the court may only ask whether the elements of the state crime and generic offense make the requisite match.”   

The Iowa statute’s alternative locations were means, not elements, because the Iowa courts had expressly held that before, the Court said.  “When a ruling of that kind exists, a sentencing judge need only follow what it says.”
With regard to other statutes, the Court said that “[i]f statutory alternatives carry different punishments, then … they must be elements” because only juries can make such findings to increase punishment. 

“If a statutory list is drafted to offer ‘illustrative examples,’ then it includes only a crime’s means of commission,” the Court said.  “And a statute may itself identify which things must be charged (and so are elements) and which need not be (and so are means).”

Lastly, the Court said that “if state law fails to provide clear answers,” federal judges can look at the record of a prior conviction itself.  Such a “peek” at the record is limited to determining whether the listed items are elements of the offense.

Other Opinions

Although five justices formed the majority, two of them expressed reservations in concurring opinions, and three others dissented – showing most justices aren’t satisfied with how the Court has interpreted ACCA.

Justice Kennedy concurred, but disagreed with the Court’s Sixth Amendment analysis and said that it “does not compel the elements based approach.”  He also said the elements approach results in “arbitrary and inequitable” outcomes, since it could not have been Congress’ intention to allow Mathis to escape punishment enhancement when he clearly committed generic burglary.

Kennedy said Congress should amend ACCA to correct these problems, but if Congress does not, the Court “should revisit its precedents in an appropriate case.”

Justice Thomas concurred, but expressed his long-held view that the Sixth Amendment does not allow judges to find prior convictions.  He called for reexamination of that issue in a future case.

Justices Breyer and Ginsburg dissented.  They said the “elements/means distinction that the Court draws should not matter for sentencing purposes,” and “will unnecessarily complicate federal sentencing law, often preventing courts from properly applying the sentencing statute that Congress enacted.”

They said a judge should be able to look at the charging documents and plea agreement to determine if there was entry of a building, rather than a vehicle, boat or plane.  If so, a judge should be able to count the conviction as burglary under ACCA, they said.

They also said the majority’s opinion was “not practical,” and that it will be difficult in practice to distinguish between elements and means.

Justice Alito dissented.  He said the Court long ago had gone off track in interpreting ACCA.  The majority’s decision will mean that in many States, no burglary conviction will count under ACCA, even though Congress “indisputably” wanted burglary to count, he said.

He would allow a judge to look at the record in an earlier case to see if the place that was burglarized was a building or something else.  “If the record is lost or inconclusive, the court could refuse to count the conviction,” he said.  “But where it is perfectly clear that a building was burglarized, count the conviction.”