Supreme Court issues opinions on sentence enhancement under ACCA
The U.S. Supreme Court issued two recent opinions on sentence enhancements under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) for illegal possession of firearms.
18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(e)(2)(B) imposes an enhanced, 15-year minimum prison term for illegal possession of a firearm if the defendant has at least three certain prior felonies.
The first categories of felonies, defined in 924(e)(2)(B)(i), are those that have “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”
The second category, defined in Sec. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), are those of “burglary, arson, or extortion,” or for crimes involving “use of explosives, or otherwise involv[ing] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”
U.S. v. Stitt
In U.S. v. Stitt, decided December 10, a unanimous Court held that the term “burglary” in ACCA includes burglary of a vehicle that has been adapted for or is currently used for overnight accommodation – thus triggering the 15-year mandatory minimum.
Whether an offense qualifies as “burglary” is determined using a “categorical approach” that requires courts to evaluate a prior 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,” the Court said. But a prior conviction does not qualify as burglary under ACCA where “the elements of the relevant state statute are broader than those of generic burglary.”
The history of ACCA indicates that the term “burglary” was intended to cover buildings and vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging, the Court said. At the time ACCA was enacted, most states defined “burglary” to include structures and vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging.
Additionally, Congress viewed “burglary” as an inherently dangerous crime because it “creates the possibility of a violent confrontation between the offender and the occupant” of the structure, the Court said. “An offender who breaks into a mobile home, an RV, a camping tent, a vehicle, or another structure that is adapted for or customarily used for lodging runs a similar or greater risk of violent confrontation.”
The Court held that Tennessee’s burglary statute, which defined “aggravated burglary” as entry into mobile homes, trailers, tents, or self-propelled vehicles which are “designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons” fell within ACCA.
The Court held that Arkansas’ burglary statute, which included entry into a vehicle “customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons” also generally fell within ACCA. But the Court remanded the Arkansas case for consideration of a different issue, which was not considered by the lower courts: whether the Arkansas statute was too broad to count as generic burglary because it also covers burglary “of a vehicle in which the person lives,” which might be too broad because it would cover a car in which a homeless person occasionally sleeps.
Stokeling v. U.S.
In Stokeling v. U.S., decided January 15, a 5-4 majority held that a prior conviction for robbery, which has as an element the use of force sufficient to overcome a victim’s resistance, falls within the use of physical force under Sec. 924(e)(2)(B)(i).
The Florida law at issue defined robbery as the taking of money or other property from the person or custody of another “when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear.” Florida courts have held that the “use of force” necessary to commit robbery requires “resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.” Under Florida law, mere “snatching of property from another” will not suffice.
Stokeling argued that the Court’s decision in Johnson v. U.S., 559 U.S. 133 (2010), required more “substantial force” to qualify under ACCA than the Florida law at issue.
But the Court disagreed.
The legislative history of ACCA shows that Congress adopted the meaning of “force” for common-law robbery in the statute, the Court said. At common law, unlawful taking was merely larceny unless the crime involved “violence.” And “violence” was “committed if sufficient force was exerted to overcome the resistance encountered.”
“[T]he force necessary to overcome a victim’s physical resistance is inherently ‘violent’ in the sense contemplated by Johnson, and ‘suggest[s] a degree of power that would not be satisfied by the merest touching.’”
Since Johnson, the Court “has repeated its holding that ‘physical force’ means ‘force capable of causing physical pain or injury,’” the Court said.
“[A]pplication of the categorical approach to the Florida robbery statute is straightforward,” the Court said. “Because the term ‘physical force’ in ACCA encompasses the degree of force necessary to commit common-law robbery, and because Florida robbery requires that same degree of ‘force,’ Florida robbery qualifies as an ACCA-predicate offense,” the Court held.
An unusual group of Justices — Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts — dissented. They said the majority’s opinion is contrary to Johnson.