News You Can Use: SCOTUS decides more ACCA predicate cases (Part 1)

The Supreme Court recently decided the consolidated cases of United States v. Stitt (and United States v. Sims), No. 17-765, 2018 WL 6439818  (U.S. Dec. 10, 2018). The opinion holds that burglary of a vehicle adapted for overnight accommodation of persons is a generic burglary for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The Stitt opinion is another in a line of cases that have asked whether certain burglary convictions qualify as predicate offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The defendants in these cases, Victor J. Stitt and Jason Daniel Sims, were each convicted in federal court of unlawfully possessing a firearm, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1). The sentencing judge in each case imposed the mandatory minimum 15-year prison term that the ACCA requires for §922(g)(1) offenders who have at least three previous convictions for certain “violent” or drug-related felonies, §924(e)(1), based in part on burglary convictions.

The Supreme Court has previously stated that burglary of a vehicle is not a valid ACCA predicate. But the narrower question in this case was whether statutes that cover burglaries of vehicles that have been adapted or customarily used for overnight accommodation should qualify as ACCA predicates because they fall within the “generic” definition of burglary.

The categorical approach

Recall that the categorical approach first adopted Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), requires courts to evaluate a prior state conviction by reference to the elements of the state offense, rather than to the defendant’s conduct. In other words, you can’t look at the underlying facts of the prior conviction to figure out whether the predicate counts. A prior state burglary conviction does not qualify under the ACCA where “the elements of [the relevant state statute] are broader than those of generic burglary.” Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016). Burglary statutes that cover vehicles as one possible means of committing the crime are therefore excluded from being predicate ACCA offenses because the statutes are overbroad. See, e.g., Mathis, 136 S. Ct. at 2250. (holding that Iowa statute covering burglary of “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle” was overbroad and indivisible and thus did not qualify as an ACCA predicate).

The nitty gritty

Stitt’s prior convictions were for violations of a Tennessee statute that defines “[a]ggravated burglary” as “burglary of a habitation.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39–14–403(a) (1997). It further defines “[h]abitation” to include: (1) “any structure, including … mobile homes, trailers, and tents, which is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons,” and (2) any “self-propelled vehicle that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons and is actually occupied at the time of initial entry by the defendant.” §§ 39–14–401(1)(A), (B) (emphasis added).

Similarly, Sims’ prior convictions were for violations of an Arkansas statute that prohibits burglary of a “residential occupiable structure.” Ark. Code Ann. § 5–39–201(a)(1) (Michie 1997). The statute defines “[r]esidential occupiable structure” to include:  “a vehicle, building, or other structure: (A) [w]here any person lives; or (B) [w]hich is customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons whether or not a person is actually present.” § 5–39–101(1) (emphasis added).

In both cases, the District Courts found the state statutory crimes fell within the scope of the word “burglary” in the Armed Career Criminal Act and consequently imposed that statute’s mandatory sentence enhancement. In both cases, the relevant Court of Appeals held that the statutory crimes did not fall within the scope of the word “burglary,” vacated the sentence, and remanded for resentencing. The Government sought certiorari in both cases in part because of a circuit split that included an old Tenth Circuit case, United States v. Spring, 80 F.3d 1450, 1462 (10th Cir. 1996), which held that such burglary convictions would qualify as ACCA predicates.

The upshot

The Supreme Court surveyed state statutes from 1986 and earlier and determined that “a majority of state burglary statutes covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging.” Stitt, 2018 WL 6439818, at *4. As a result, such burglary convictions were included within the definition of “generic burglary.” In so doing, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions below of the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, and also abrogated contrary precedent in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits. See United States v. White, 836 F.3d 437, 446 (4th Cir. 2016); United States v. Grisel, 488 F.3d 844 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc). Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Takeaways

  • Burglary convictions/statutes that cover vehicles plain and simple are still out, but statutes that cover vehicles “adapted for overnight accommodation of persons” will now qualify as ACCA predicates—as long as they are not overbroad and indivisible in some other way.
  • For a refresher on the categorical approach, see Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243 (2016), available here.
  • Remember: burglary convictions are NEVER crimes of violence under the career offender provisions of the Guidelines (this case affects only potential ACCA clients).

 

 

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming

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