News You Can Use: SCOTUS clarifies ACCA’s “serious drug offense” definition

In Shular v. United States, the Supreme Court held that “serious drug offense” in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii) requires only that the state offense involve the conduct specified in the statute; it does not require that the state offense match generic offenses. A prior state law conviction qualifies so long as, under the categorical approach, it necessarily “involves manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute” a federally controlled substance. Therefore, the defendant’s prior conviction was a “serious drug offense” notwithstanding his assertion it was broader than the generic definition because it did not require knowledge that the substance possessed was illicit. Shular v. United States, No. 18-6662, 2020 WL 908904 (U.S. Feb. 26, 2020).

Background on ACCA and the categorical approach

Felon in possession of a firearm usually carries a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2). However, the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence where the defendant has three previous convictions for a “violent felony” or “serious drug offense.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). To determine whether a defendant’s prior conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate, courts must apply the “categorical approach.” That is, they look only at the elements of the prior offense (not the defendant’s actual conduct) and determine whether those elements categorically qualify as a violent felony or serious drug offense. See generally Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016).

Most of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on predicate offenses and the categorical approach involves ACCA’s definition of “violent felony,” which can be satisfied in one of two ways: (1) under the “force” or “elements” clause, it means any offense that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force,” or (2) under the “enumerated offenses” clause, it means any offense that “is burglary, arson, or extortion.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B). A “serious drug offense” includes most federal drug offenses and any state offense “involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute” a federally controlled substance. Id. § 924(e)(2)(A) (it also must be punishably by at least 10 years in prison).

The Supreme Court has held that the enumerated offenses clause refers to the contemporary, generic version of that offense; that is, the definition used by most state codes. Thus, for example, after analyzing state codes and criminal treatises, the Supreme Court determined that the generic definition of burglary is “an unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 598 (1990).

Shular

In Shular, the defendant argued that the definition of “serious drug offense” referred to the names of drug-related crimes in the same way that the definition of violent felony refers to burglary, arson, and extortion. For example, “possession with intent to distribute,” while descriptive, is also just the shorthand name of that offense. Mr. Shular also argued, most states’ drug offenses require a mens rea element that the defendant must know that the substances involved are illicit; therefore, that mens rea must be part of the generic definition implicitly referenced in the ACCA’s definition of “serious drug offense.” Mr. Shular’s offense of conviction, however, did not have that mens rea. It was therefore broader than the generic definition and did not qualify as a “serious drug offense.”

The government argued that the definition of “serious drug offense” was not referring to the names of offenses; rather it was describing what conduct must be proscribed by the state statutes to qualify as a predicate. In other words, it was more like the violent felony definition’s “elements” clause than the “enumerated offenses” clause. Under this interpretation, no inquiry into the mens rea of the generic definition of any drug offense is required—Mr. Shular’s prior conviction qualified because it necessarily involved: (1) manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute; and (2) a federally controlled substance.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the government. It found compelling two features of the definition, particularly when compared against the definition of “violent felony.” First, the Court thought that the definition of “serious drug offense” was more descriptive and would be “unlikely names for generic offenses.” Burglary, arson, and extortion, on the other hand, unambiguously name offenses and therefore refer to the generic definitions of those offenses. Second, the “serious drug offense” definition spoke of offenses that involve manufacturing or distribution, which again suggested that they were descriptive terms identifying conduct, not generic offenses. Had Congress intended to refer to generic offenses, it would have used the term “is,” not “involving,” as it did in the violent felony definition. Because the statute uses the term “involving” followed by descriptive conduct, it is not referring to the generic definition of, for example, a “manufacturing” offense.

Basic Takeaways

  • The categorical approach applies to the ACCA’s definition of “serious drug offense.”
  • “Serious drug offense” does not enumerate offenses that must be given their generic definitions.
  • A prior conviction is a “serious drug offense” so long as it necessarily involves manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture a federally controlled substance—regardless of any potential overbreadth with another element of the generic definition, such as mens rea.
  • It is more like the “force” clause in violent felony than it is the enumerated offenses clause.

Other Implications; Potential Future Arguments

  • A “serious drug offense” still must categorically involve a federally controlled substance, so arguments that state schedules are overbroad are still valid. Cf. Mellouli v. Lynch, 135 S. Ct. 1980, 1989-91 (2015)
  • Arguments that a statute is overbroad because it applies to “offers to sell” should likewise still be valid because they do not categorically involve distributing or possessing with intent to distribute. See United States v. Madkins, 866 F.3d 1136 (10th Cir. 2017); United States v. McKibbon, 878 F.3d 967 (10th Cir. 2017).
  • Inchoate crimes might be ripe to challenge again. The Tenth Circuit’s prior justification for including inchoate crimes is that it “read[s] the ‘involving manufacturing’ language broadly to include attempts to manufacture or conspiracy to manufacture.” United States v. Trent, 767 F.3d 1046, 1057 (10th Cir. 2014). However, in Shular, the parties agreed “that ‘involve’ means ‘necessarily require.’” Shular, 2020 WL 908904, at *5. This narrower definition potentially undermines the Tenth Circuit’s justification for expanding the definition of “serious drug offense” to inchoate crimes.
  • More arguments may come to light as the impact of Shular becomes more clear in the coming months, so be on the lookout for updates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: COFPD

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