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Details: Descamps v. United States

Under federal law, felons are not allowed to possess firearms. When the defendant has previously committed three violent felonies, a statute known as the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) sharply increases the punishment for possessing a firearm.  The statute has been difficult to apply because it is not always clear whether convictions under state laws – which vary in their elements, and which may not produce very robust records (for example, if the conviction was the result of a guilty plea) – correspond to “violent felonies.”

For example, Congress has provided that “burglary” is a violent felony, and what Congress had in mind was the traditional, generic definition of burglary: unlawfully entering a building. But state burglary statutes apply to a broader array of circumstances. In California, it is possible to violate the burglary statute even if you do not enter a building unlawfully – so, if you walk into a store lawfully, but then engage in shoplifting, then you can be charged with burglary. But shoplifting isn’t a “violent felony.”

To decide whether a defendant has committed the right kind of burglary (or any other covered offense), courts apply what is known as the “categorical approach.” They look to the elements of generic burglary, and to the elements of the state offense. If the state offense contains all the elements of generic burglary, then the state conviction counts as a violent felony. In some cases, state statutes have multiple clauses – for example, a statute could say, “whoever unlawfully enters into a building or an automobile with intent to commit a crime therein is guilty of burglary.” In those cases, the Supreme Court has endorsed a “modified categorical approach,” which permits courts to consider certain reliable documents to determine whether the defendant was convicted of entering a building (which would be generic burglary), or a car (which would not).

In this case, Matthew Descamps had pleaded guilty to burglary under California law. Unlike state statutes that have multiple clauses, the California statute simply has one indivisible set of elements: it applies whenever somebody enters into certain locations with intent to commit a crime therein. Thus, based on the conviction itself, all we knew is that Descamps had committed state law burglary. We did not know whether his entry had been unlawful, which is a crucial element of “generic” burglary. The question in this case was whether the courts were permitted to look beyond his conviction to find out what sort of conduct he engaged in that gave rise to it, and then to apply the enhanced ACCA sentence if it was shown that he had, in fact, engaged in generic burglary. The lower courts held that the answer was “Yes.” Looking to statements in Descamps’s plea colloquy, they determined that his conviction was for breaking and entering into a grocery store. The district court thus enhanced his sentence under the ACCA, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In an eight-to-one decision by Justice Kagan, the Court held that when a state criminal statute contains but a single set of indivisible elements, the modified categorical approach does not apply. Convictions under such statutes can therefore never constitute predicate offenses for an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act. In the Court’s words: “We know Descamps’ crime of conviction, and it does not correspond to the relevant generic offense. Under our prior decisions, the inquiry is over.” The opinion also contained a detailed criticism of the Ninth Circuit’s contrary reasoning, and a thorough recitation of the law underlying the categorical and modified categorical approaches. Justice Alito penned a solo dissent, arguing that the ACCA should be given a “more practical reading” whereby when it is known that the defendant committed a violent felony, the enhanced penalty applies.

Recommended Citation: Tejinder Singh, Details: Descamps v. United States, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 20, 2013, 10:51 AM),