Court Limits Prior Convictions' Use in Sentencing

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 20, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling limits the use of prior convictions under federal sentencing enhancements that give felons more prison time for having three or more prior convictions for certain crimes.

In Descamps v. U.S., defendant Matthew Descamps had been convicted of burglary in California in 1978, which the federal criminal court and Ninth Circuit had deemed as a "violent" felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).

But the Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Descamps' 15-year sentence enhancement under the ACCA, limiting how courts can view prior convictions.

What Is the ACCA?

The ACCA was passed by Congress in 1984 to punish repeat offenders who had been convicted of what they considered "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses" by adding a minimum of 15 years to their criminal sentences.

Congress wasn't exhaustive in naming which state convictions would count under this federal law, so the Supreme Court has stepped in a handful of times to define what's considered a "violent felony" under the ACCA.

Descamps' case is the latest instance of the Court clarifying the ACCA for the lower courts, this time clearing up whether a California burglary conviction is a violent felony.

Do the Elements Match?

Even though the ACCA contains a list of crimes that count as "violent felonies," and "burglary" is among them, there is the problem of whether California burglary matches federal burglary.

In general, burglary has these elements:

  • Unlawful entry
  • Into a structure (a home, business, boat, warehouse, etc.)
  • With intent to commit a felony or larceny (i.e., theft).

The California law in this case does not match the general definition, because it does not require "unlawful entry." That means defendants like Descamps can be convicted for burglary under a broader definition in California.

Under Broader Law, Conviction Doesn't Count for ACCA

In prior cases, courts have gone beyond the language of just the criminal statutes and looked at either the jury instructions or plea bargain to find if the defendant's specific actions in the burglary matched the general definition.

Justices, however, put their foot down and stated that this method, referred to as the modified categorical method, cannot be used when the law has a single set of elements (like the California burglary statute).

To go digging through the factual records and have a judge essentially act as jury to align a defendant's actions with a federal crime is in conflict with a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights to have convictions proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the Court explained.

Because it was broader than the general definition, prior California burglary convictions are not considered "violent felonies" under the ACCA, even if the defendant did enter unlawfully.

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