The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that will make it harder for judges to slap repeat violent offenders with mandatory minimum sentences.
Writing for the court’s 8-to-1 majority in Descamps v. United States, Justice Elena Kagan explained (PDF) that a lower court misapplied a rule that allows for longer sentences if an individual has repeatedly committed offenses of the same generic category.
In this instance, petitioner Matthew Descamps, a California felon who police found in possession of a firearm, faced roughly double the sentence he would have thanks to an old conviction for burglary and the judge’s application of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which permits enhanced sentences based upon a person’s criminal history.
However, there are very particular rules governing how the ACCA can be applied, and in this case the Supreme Court found that the district court and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied the law incorrectly by delving into the unique facts of Descamps’ burglary conviction to determine if California’s wide-ranging definition of “burglary” matched the more narrow federal statute.
Though the ACCA does allow judges to look at unique case elements to consider the generic category of a past offense, it only permits this in narrow circumstances; judges are otherwise advised to apply the category generically, due in large part to the wide differences in legal language from state to state.
The Supreme Court felt the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals went outside the boundaries of the ACCA. Kagan wrote that it went so far over the line that the 9th Circuit’s logic could be used to attach “an infinite number of sub-crimes” to almost any offense in order to obtain enhanced sentences.
“Think: Professor Plum, in the ballroom, with the candlestick?” she wrote. “Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with the rope, on a snowy day, to cover up his affair with Mrs. Peacock?”
She added that the Ninth Circuit “is merely asking whether a particular set of facts leading to a conviction conforms to a generic ACCA offense,” Kagan concluded. “And that is what we have expressly and repeatedly forbidden.”
In the court’s lone dissent, Justice Samuel Alito noted that Descamps had a long criminal record that included threatening to kill a judge, and was in the system to begin with because he fired a gun at a man who allegedly owed him money for methamphetamine. “While producing very modest benefits at most, the Court’s holding will create several serious problems,” he warned.
[“Stock photo: A man in jail,” via Shutterstock.]