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US justices debate career criminals

Prior convictions for violent felonies can lead to a significant sentencing enhancement under federal law, but what evidence can sentencing courts consider to determine if a felony is violent enough to trigger heightened punishment?

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court considered that issue in a case that could significantly cut the sentence of the defendant and others in similar situations.

Descamps v. U.S. stems from the felony firearm conviction of Matthew Robert Descamps. The offense carried a 10-year maximum sentence, but prosecutors sought to impose an enhanced sentence – a minimum of 15 years – under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on three prior convictions.

Descamps objected, arguing that although generic burglary convictions trigger the Act, his prior California state burglary offense lacked the requisite element of unlawful or unprivileged entry and didn’t qualify as a violent felony.

The district court rejected that argument. Instead of considering the generic elements of burglary, the judge looked at the underlying conduct and ruled that it qualified as a violent felony. Descamps was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

He appealed the sentence, and the 9th Circuit affirmed, holding that sentencing courts may look to any facts of the relevant underlying offense to make a determination of ACCA applicability.

Descamps sought and was granted certiorari from the Supreme Court, which heard arguments Monday.

Life sentences for shoplifters?

Dan Johnson, a Spokane, Wash., attorney appointed by the Court to represent Descamps, argued that because the California burglary law can be applied so broadly, it should be categorically barred from triggering the ACCA.

“Is a shoplifter someone who should be subject to an Armed Career Criminal Act enhancement?” he asked.

Allowing sentencing courts to look at the underlying facts of previous cases violates Apprendi v. New Jersey, which leaves that determination to a jury, he said.

“[Descamps] went from a max 10 2022 to a max of life and a mandatory minimum of 15 years based on what we contend is fact finding in violation of Apprendi.” Johnson said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy looked for a place to draw the line with a “modified categorical approach.”

“Would the plea colloquy suffice to show that [the] defendant necessarily was convicted of a crime that’s equivalent to the generic crime of burglary?” Kennedy asked.

Johnson said that wouldn’t be enough because the California law is “missing an element” and it’s up to state lawmakers to fix it.

“But it’s not California’s problem, right?” asked Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “We’re talking about federal legislation and how that operates.”

Greater sentencing equity

Benjamin Horwich, assistant to the solicitor general, argued for the government that criminal statutes often list alternative elements that can make up a particular crime, and eliminating those crimes from the ACCA’s application just because they differ from generic crime elements would be “unworkable.”

“The sentencing court ought to look… to the factual basis that’s offered for pleading guilty,” Horwich said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the comparison between a missing element and an alternative element “doesn’t make sense to me.”

“I read the California statute. All it says is you have to enter … with the intent to commit a crime,” Sotomayor said. “It doesn’t talk about whether the entry itself is unlawful.”

Horwich said allowing courts to look at the factual basis for convictions would “assure greater sentencing equity.”

“It seems very strange to me that you could have had someone engage in exactly the conduct [in] another state [and] be convicted of that state’s version of burglary, and then it does count, but it doesn’t count in California,” Horwich said.

A decision is expected later this term.

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