SCOTUS Hears Arguments to Determine Qualifications for Longer Sentences

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By Jessica DaSilva

April 26 — The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments April 26 on how to interpret state laws to determine whether defendants qualify for longer sentences under the Armed Career Criminals Act by examining a list featured in an Iowa burglary statute.

The court's ultimate decision will impact what prosecutors and judges must prove when using certain documents in seeking sentencing enhancements, explained Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan, of Western Michigan University's Cooley Law School.

Three Burglaries or Three Ways to Burgle?

The defendant in this case maintained a criminal record with a past burglary charge in Iowa. While the ACCA considers burglary a violent felony qualifying for a sentencing enhancement, it uses a generic definition of the crime.

Defendants only qualify for sentencing enhancements based on state statutes that are similarly generic or narrower than the generic definition. That question came into play with Iowa's statute, which used the ACCA's language of an “occupied structure,” but also included a list of alternative structures that could be burgled.

The government argued those individual structures each counted as a separate and divisible crime, thus allowing the court to search the case record for additional evidence that the defendant's crime in fact fell within the boundaries of the generic definition of burglary—that is, he actually burgled an “occupied structure,” as opposed to a boat or car. However, the defendant argued the list of structures counted as one crime with necessary elements to prove the conviction.

“The question is basically, ‘Is it three burglary crimes or three ways to commit a burglary crime?'” summarized Professor Stephanos Bibas at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Deciphering Nuance

The justices asked questions attempting to decipher the nuanced arguments, with Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Stephen G. Breyer mostly challenging petitioner's interpretation, while Justice Elena Kagan led the charge against the government.

Kagan wrote one of the more recent opinions on this topic in Descamps v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2276, 2013 BL 162692 (U.S. 2013) (93 CrL 442, 6/26/13), in which the court first made the distinction between necessary elements and means of committing crimes. That opinion limited the power that the government sought to wield in this case.

In parsing out the issue, the justices inquired about plain language, the significance of state case law, double jeopardy analysis, Supreme Court precedent and the significance of convictions- versus conduct-based analysis.

Bibas said the difficulty in this issue hinges on the various ways states draft what he called “Chinese menu crimes” that often allow prosecutors to bring charges under a single statute listing within the statute various methods to commit the crime.

“The court has never been completely clear as to whether these are elements or factors,” he said.

In determining whether state statutes fit within the ACCA, Krause-Phelan said judges and prosecutors are limited examining jury instructions, plea colloquies, and statutory language. The court wants to avoid retrying those past convictions by delving into more records, she added.

“That's another reason we need to make it simple,” she said.

Potential Immigration Impact

Bibas explained that the court's decision in this case will not only impact defendants with past criminal records, but individuals with state criminal records facing deportation.

Immigration laws require deportation for individuals with prior aggravated felony records, Bibas said. The same analysis for the ACCA sentencing enhancement applies to qualifying for deportation, he added.

Mark C. Fleming, Boston, argued on behalf of the petitioner. Nicole A. Saharsky, of the U.S. Solicitor General's Office, Washington, argued on behalf of the government.

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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