To decide if a prior state offense qualifies as a “serious drug offense” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, courts must use a categorical approach based on the “conduct” specified in the state statute, not a comparison to a “generic offense,” the U.S. Supreme Court held February 26 in Shular v. United States.


ACCA, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(e), mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for certain defendants with prior convictions for a “serious drug offense.”  Under ACCA, a state offense is a “serious drug offense” if it “involv[es] manufacturing, distributing, or possession with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.”


Eddie Lee Shular was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.  He was sentenced to the 15-year minimum prison term under ACCA because he had at least  three prior “serious drug offenses” — five prior state convictions for selling cocaine and one conviction for possessing cocaine with intent to sell.


Shular argued that his prior offenses did not qualify under ACCA because a court should identify the elements of the “generic” offenses listed in ACCA, and then ask if the elements of the state offense match those of the “generic” crime.


But a unanimous Supreme Court disagreed.


Both Shular and the Government correctly agree that ACCA requires a categorical approach, the Court said.  “A court mus look only to the state offense’s elements, not the facts of the case or labels pinned to the state conviction.”


Shular would require a “generic offense matching exercise” where a court should define the elements of the generic offenses listed in ACCA, then compare those elements to the state offense.


By contrast, the Government’s approach would ask whether the state offense’s elements “necessarily entail one of the types of conduct” identified in ACCA.


“The Government’s reading, we are convinced, correctly interprets the statutory text and context,” the Court said.


The terms in ACCA – “manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance” – are “unlikely names for generic offenses,” the Court said.  And the use of the word “involve[es]” suggests that the descriptive terms immediately following the word “involving” identify conduct.


Shular’s prior offenses qualified as “serious drug offenses” under ACCA since they involved the conduct specified in ACCA.