Supreme Court Reverses Ninth Circuit on ACCA

The Supreme Court recently reversed the Ninth Circuit in an important case involving the proper application of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides for a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for federal criminal defendants who have 3 prior convictions for a "violent felony" or "serious drug offense." It can further aggravate a sentence beyond the 15 year minimum under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines by artificially increasing both the client's base offense level and elevating their criminal history category.

Much litigation has been devoted over the years to determine whether or not a prior state court conviction qualifies as a "violent felony" or "serious drug offense." Traditionally courts have used what has been called the "categorical approach" in making such a determination. Under the categorical approach. The elements of the state law describing the crime are compared to the common or generic form of the crime. If the state law at issue is the same or narrower than the common or generic understanding of the crime then it qualifies as a "violent felony" or "serious drug offense" for purposes of the ACCA.

More recently the US Supreme Court had approved a variant of this approach which is commonly referred to as the "modified categorical approach." The modified approach was designed to be used in cases where the prior conviction was under a state law that could be violated in more than one way. For example, a state law might refer to burglary as the unlawful entry into a home or in the alternative, a car. Such laws are termed "divisible." If one version of the "divisible" law qualified as a generic violent felony or serious drug offense but another version did not, then the court was directed to review a limited class of court documents from the prior case to determine under which version of the divisible statute the prior conviction fell.

Michael Descamps was found to have been an Armed Career Criminal in part based upon his conviction for burglary in California. Burglary in California requires that a person enter certain premises with the intent to commit certain crimes therein. Unlike generic forms of burglary, California's burglary statute does not provide that the entry onto the premises itself be unlawful. Under the categorical approach, this conviction does not qualify as an ACCA predicate offense.

Based on an earlier decision, the Ninth Circuit had held that it was proper for the District Court to employ the modified categorical approach usually reserved for divisible statutes. It reasoned that even though the California law was not a divisible statute, its elements were broader than those of generic burglary and that therefore the court could employ the modified categorical approach to see if Mr. Descamps' conviction was based on facts that would satisfy the generic definition of burglary.

The Supreme Court reversed holding that the modified categorical approach is to be utilized only in cases involving divisible statutes. This is so because properly understood the inquiry itself is not properly directed at the facts underlying the conviction itself, but rather the elements that would have necessarily had to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain a conviction. The inquiry is strictly limited in either case to an examination of the elements of the prior offense - not the facts thereof. This is so because under the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution only the fact of a prior conviction - not the facts that gave rise to the conviction - may be used to enhance a sentence. If the facts underlying the conviction itself are at issue then those facts must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The Ninth Circuit's approach would have allowed a modified categorical analysis, in any case, thereby circumventing the defendant's right to have all contested facts (other than the fact of a prior conviction) against him proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.


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