By Christopher Zoukis
Congress passed the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) in 1984, aiming to bring longer sentences to violent career criminals. Under ACCA, federal defendants facing firearms possession charges can get much longer sentences if they have previously been convicted of three or more violent felonies or serious drug crimes. The 10-year maximum sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm rises to a 15-year minimum and lifetime maximum.
On October 9, the Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases raising issues about what exactly is or isn’t included within the definition of violent felony. Variations in state criminal laws often make it necessary for courts to determine whether violating a particular law amounts to committing a violent felony.
In Stokeling v. United States, a Florida man argued that a prior conviction for suddenly snatching a necklace off a woman’s neck should not count as a violent felony. In that case, the defendant with two previous robbery convictions pleaded guilty in 2016 to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Prosecutors sought to invoke the ACCA to increase his sentence for the firearms charge. Defendant Stokeling argued his prior conviction didn’t qualify as a violent felony under the ACCA.
The ACCA’s definition of violent felony includes a crime which has as an element “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force” against another person. The federal trial court agreed with Stokeling that ACCA’s definition of violent felony shouldn’t include an offense which a state appellate court had defined as requiring only slight force to overcome any victim resistance, but the 11th Circuit reversed. The U.S. Department of Justice argued against a Supreme Court review.
Two other combined cases — United States v. Stitt and United States v. Sims – raise the question of what types of burglary qualify for ACCA enhancement. Burglaries are one of a limited number of offenses that ACCA explicitly includes in its definition of violent felony, but the defendants’ convictions in these cases came under Arkansas and Tennessee burglary laws which lower courts saw as significantly broader than how Supreme Court precedent defines that term, and thus not capable as serving as violent felonies for ACCA purposes.
Though the state laws differ from each other in various ways, both authorize burglary prosecutions not just for breaking into residential structures, but also into mobile homes, trailers and other non-permanent or moveable structures where people might sleep. Supreme Court precedent (in its 1990 Taylor decision) excluded vehicles from areas that can be subject to burglary. It was the Justice Department which asked the Supreme Court to review the lower court decisions, which it claimed were wrongly decided.
Perhaps because the arguments came at the start of the second week of the Supreme Court’s new term, or because it was the first argument attended by newly installed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but the high court’s oral argument seemed more light-hearted than is normally the case.
At one point, when hearing the Stokeling argument, and discussing how much violence would have to accompany a crime to establish it as violent, Justice Sotomayor asked if it would be enough that she pinched the victim, and mimed pinching Justice Gorsuch, who acted horrified by the suggestion.