By Christopher Zoukis
At the start of its current term, the U.S. Supreme Court heard appeals in three cases asking to limit the scope of crimes that trigger the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which raises from 10 to 15 years the mandatory minimum sentence for a federal firearms charge if the defendant has previously been convicted of three or more violent or drug-related state felonies.
In defining violent crime, ACCA specifically mentions three crimes, one of which is burglary. In two Supreme Court appeals (U.S. v. Stitt, U.S. v. Sims) heard together, Victor Stitt and Jason Sims had received the additional five years in their sentences which ACCA adds to firearms convictions after state burglary convictions (Stitt in Tennessee, and Sims in Arkansas). When they appealed those sentence enhancements, two different federal appeals courts overruled the extra five years.
In its 1990 decision Taylor v. United States, the high court held ACCA calls for a “generic” definition of burglary, meaning one based on the elements of the statute, not the specifics of any individual offense. Taylor identified the general basis of burglary as the criminal invasion of “a building or structure” intending to commit a crime inside.
The defendants argued the burglary laws in their states were unsuitable to serve as an ACCA precedent, because they weren’t limited to residences and buildings, but also extended to vehicles. The trial court had rejected that argument, but the appeals courts were persuaded. Federal prosecutors appealed, asking the Supreme Court to decide what “burglary” meant in the ACCA.
The Department of Justice submitted an analysis of state burglary laws which maintained the laws in 43 states and the District of Columbia reached non-permanent or movable structures like vehicles (such as RVs and campers), boats, tents and the like, which were used or suitable for use for living or sleeping. That was enough for all nine members of the court (including Brett Kavanaugh, for whom it was the first argument he heard the nation’s highest tribunal) to join a short, to-the-point opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer. It reversed the appellate court rulings and ordered the defendants to be re-sentenced.
While the Court made clear that a state burglary law does not become ineligible to serve as a precedent capable of triggering ACCA’s enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for defendants facing firearm charges just because it goes beyond the essential elements of a burglary offense, there may still be some leeway to argue that the state law is somehow different enough to have that effect. In fact, the Supreme Court’s opinion ordered further argument after Sims case goes back to his trial court for a different argument about the Arkansas burglary law.
The Supreme Court has not yet decided a third case on ACCA (Stokeling v. U.S.) argued the same day as the Stitt and Sims cases, so it remains to be seen whether it will reinterpret what’s needed to trigger that law. But that case dealt with a robbery, an offense not specifically mentioned in ACCA, rather than a burglary, an area which seems well-settled now.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.