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Opinion analysis: Justices hold their fire on the ACCA, unanimously agreeing that “burglary” includes vehicles “adapted or customarily used” for overnight sleeping

In a brief and straightforward opinion, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that “burglary” as used in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act encompasses not just buildings but also any “vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation.” As I previously reported, today’s two consolidated cases (U.S. v. Stitt and U.S. v. Sims) were argued on the same day (October 9, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s first day on the Supreme Court bench) as another ACCA case, Stokeling v. U.S. The court this morning did not issue an opinion in Stokeling, suggesting that the justices who have expressed unhappiness with the ACCA in the past may be holding their fire (that is, writing separate opinions) for Stokeling, which presumably will now not be decided until next year. Today’s opinion in Stitt is crisp, clear and devoid of controversy.    

Brief recap of the issue

Justice Stephen Breyer’s eight-and-a-half page opinion for a unanimous court concisely presents the issues. In 1986, Congress provided in the ACCA that various repeat offenders who are then federally convicted of unlawful firearms possession should receive a mandatory minimum 15-year imprisonment term. Congress listed “burglary” among the types of “violent felony” convictions that can qualify a person for an ACCA sentence, and in 1990 the court ruled in Taylor v. United States that the law requires a “generic” definition of burglary, that is, a “categorical” one based on the statutory elements rather than on the facts of any individual case. When state-court prior convictions are at issue, an ACCA judge therefore must look to the elements of the state’s burglary statute.

Both Victor Stitt and Jason Sims were otherwise eligible for an ACCA sentence; Stitt had prior convictions for burglary under Tennessee law and Sims under Arkansas law. They argued, however, that their prior burglary convictions ought not to count for ACCA purposes, because their states’ burglary statutes encompassed “vehicles” and thus went beyond the generic definition stated in Taylor: criminal invasion of “a building or structure” with intent to commit a crime inside. Both the district courts rejected this argument, but the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th and 8th Circuits agreed with it and vacated Stitt and Sims’ ACCA sentences.

Court: Vehicles are “within the scope” of structures

Tennessee’s statute criminalizes the “burglary of a habitation,” and defines habitation to include any vehicle “that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons.” Arkansas’ statute similarly prohibits burglary of a “residential occupiable structure” and then defines that term to include “a vehicle, building or other structure … which is customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons.” Today the court ruled, in harmony with the government’s certiorari request, that “[t]he relevant language of the Tennessee and Arkansas statutes falls within the scope of generic burglary’s definition.” “Structure” is broad enough to encompass vehicles, and in Taylor the Supreme Court had ruled that Congress intended, in the ACCA, to adopt a definition of burglary in “the generic sense in which the term was used in the criminal codes of most States at the time.” As the court explained today, at the time of the ACCA’s 1986 adoption, “a majority of state burglary statutes covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging.”

In addition, today’s opinion noted that the ACCA Congress viewed burglary as “inherently dangerous” crime; the court went on to say that burglaries of “a mobile home, an RV, [and even] a camping tent” run “a similar or greater risk of violent confrontation” as the burglary of a house. Moreover, even if “a vehicle is only used for lodging part of the time, we have no reason to believe that Congress intended to make a part-time/full-time distinction” regarding burglaries, whether for homes or vehicles.

Papering over possible grounds for intra-court disagreement, Breyer quickly explained that even if two prior decisions did not name “vehicles” as within the ACCA, “examination of those cases … convinces us that we did not decide in either case the question before us.” Thus the “adapted for or customarily used for overnight accommodation” definition is now adopted for burglary in all ACCA cases. Interestingly, the court remanded Sims’ case for further proceedings to consider an additional statutory argument under Arkansas law, while Stitt’s case is apparently finally decided, suggesting that Stitt’s prior burglary convictions fall squarely within the court’s ruling today.

Conclusion: ACCA critics must wait for Stokeling

After today’s decision, some federal ACCA defendants will still be able to argue about the vagaries of their particular state’s burglary law. But a majority of state burglary statutes will now presumably fall under the ACCA without dispute.

Meanwhile, the jaundiced view of the ACCA expressed at argument in these cases by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and others will have to wait for expression until the opinion in Stokeling is issued. That case involves state convictions for robbery, and unlike in today’s statutory question, the term “robbery” is not expressly used in the current version of the ACCA. Still, today’s opinion seems to unanimously embrace a broad and deferential view of the ACCA. One might speculate that the justices have been stung in recent months by the bitter Kavanaugh confirmation process and November’s “tête à tweet” between the president and the chief justice. Perhaps a desire to demonstrate stability and unity will temper the justices’ divided views about the ACCA in Stokeling as well — or perhaps not. Stayed tuned after, one hopes, a relaxing holiday break.

Recommended Citation: Rory Little, Opinion analysis: Justices hold their fire on the ACCA, unanimously agreeing that “burglary” includes vehicles “adapted or customarily used” for overnight sleeping, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 10, 2018, 3:51 PM),