WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly ordered a lighter sentence for a repeat offender because he was convicted under a California law that is too generic.
Michael Descamps had been sentenced to 262 months in prison - more than twice the term he would otherwise have received - because a federal judge found that he qualified for enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).
His latest conviction, being a felon in possession of a firearm, normally carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence.
Federal prosecutors had sought the enhancement because the defendant's record included previous state convictions for burglary, robbery and felony harassment.
Descamps argued, however, that his prior burglary conviction could not count as an ACCA predicate offense under the categorical approach that federal courts use to determine what convictions qualify as "violent felonies."
In this case, Descamps had previously pleaded guilty to violating a California law says a "person who enters" certain locations "with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary."
While most other burglary laws require the entry to have been unlawful, such as involving breaking and entering, California's broader definition would cover a shoplifter who enters a store, like any customer, during normal business hours.
Since the state law goes beyond the "generic" definition of burglary, Descamps said he the burglary conviction did not qualify as an ACCA predicate - regardless of whether his own burglary involved an unlawful entry that could have satisfied the requirements of the generic crime.
In ordering the enhancement, the District Court examined Descamps' plea colloquy to discover whether he had "admitted the elements of a generic burglary" when entering his plea.
The record showed that Descamps did not object when the prosecution described his crime as the "breaking and entering of a grocery store."
Descamps sought relief
from the Supreme Court after the 9th Circuit affirmed
The justices reversed Thursday, noting that the dispute here "involves a simple discrepancy between generic burglary and the crime established in §459," California's burglarly law.
"The former requires an unlawful entry along the lines of breaking and entering," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "The latter does not, and indeed covers simple shoplifting, as even the government acknowledges."
Section 459 thus "'define[s] burglary more broadly' than the generic offense," the ruling continues.
"And because that is true - because California, to get a conviction, need not prove that Descamps broke and entered - a §459 violation cannot serve as an ACCA predicate," Kagan added. "Whether Descamps did
break and enter makes no difference. And likewise, whether he ever admitted to breaking and entering is irrelevant. Our decisions authorize review of the plea colloquy or other approved extra-statutory documents only when a statute defines burglary not (as here) overbroadly, but instead alternatively, with one statutory phrase corresponding to the generic crime and another not. In that circumstance, a court may look to the additional documents to determine which of the statutory offenses (generic or non-generic) formed the basis of the defendant's conviction. But here no uncertainty of that kind exists, and so the categorical approach needs no help from its modified partner. We know Descamps' crime of conviction, and it does not correspond to the relevant generic offense. Under our prior decisions, the inquiry is over." (Parentheses and emphasis in original.)
Chief Justice Roberts joined the opinion in full, as did Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment, noting that he disagreed with the court's reasoning.
"Regardless of the framework adopted, judicial factfinding increases the statutory maximum in violation of the Sixth Amendment," Thomas wrote. "However, because today's opinion at least limits the situations in which courts make factual determinations about prior convictions, I concur in the judgment."
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy highlighted how the effect of the court's decision is to put "an intrusive demand on the states."
Through the regular course of the criminal process, courts enter convictions, often by guilty pleas, "when either the attorney or the client, or both, have given no consideration to possible later consequences under ACCA," Kennedy wrote.
"This significant risk of failing to consider the full consequences of the plea and conviction is troubling," Kennedy added.
He noted that states will now have to amend what is "likely a large number of" criminal statutes to ensure that they meet the federal requirements.
"If Congress wishes to pursue its policy in a proper and efficient way without mandating uniformity among the states with respect to their criminal statutes for scores of serious offenses, and without requiring the amendment of any number of federal criminal statutes as well, Congress should act at once," he added. "It may then determine whether ACCA's design and structure should be modified to meet the concerns expressed both by the court and the dissenting opinion."
Justice Samuel Alito picked up this thread in a dissenting opinion.
"I would give ACCA a more practical reading," Alito wrote. "When it is clear that a defendant necessarily admitted or the jury necessarily found that the defendant committed the elements of generic burglary, the conviction should qualify. Petitioner's burglary conviction meets that requirement, and I would therefore affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals."