Descamps v. United States

Case: Descamps v. United States, 11-9540

The Court’s Opinion

Summary of Case:

A new U.S. Supreme Court case, Descamps v. United States, will make it harder for the government to convict people under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  And, it’s retroactive.

Under federal law, felons may not possess firearms. When a felon in possession of a firearm has three or more prior state or federal convictions for drug trafficking or violent felonies, he can be convicted under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e).  ACCA carries a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.  If a person facing ACCA charges can prove that one of his prior convictions is not a “violent felony,” though, he cannot be convicted under ACCA and his sentence cannot exceed ten years.

Burglary is considered a violent felony under federal law. Under federal law, burglary is “unlawfully entering a building.”  The courts call this kind of burglary “generic burglary.” Only generic burglary qualifies as a violent felony for purposes of ACCA.

State burglary laws vary a great deal.  Some use the generic burglary definition just like federal law.  Some states have multiple definitions of burglary, including the definition for generic burglary. Still other states have very broad definitions of burglary. 

So, how does a federal court decide whether a prior state conviction for burglary is a conviction for generic burglary and thus a violent offense that can count under ACCA?  The Supreme Court allows federal courts to go about this in one of two ways: 

   (1) The federal court looks at the state burglary statute. If the statute defines burglary only as “unlawfully entering a building” that is generic burglary and counts as a violent felony.

   (2) If the statute has more than one definition of burglary – the generic definition and other definitions – the court needs to figure out if the jury found that the defendant committed generic burglary. For example, a state law may define burglary as unlawfully entering a building or unlawfully entering an automobile. In that case, unlawfully entering a building is burglary for ACCA purposes; unlawfully entering an automobile is not.  In such cases, simply looking at the statute is not helpful.  So, courts are allowed to examine certain reliable documents (like the plea agreement or jury verdict, for example) to determine whether the defendant was found guilty of unlawfully entering a building, which would be generic burglary, and thus a violent felony that would count toward ACCA.

Mr. Descamps was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. His three prior convictions included a conviction in California for burglary. California’s burglary law says:  “a person who enters” certain locations “with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary.”   It does not require that the defendant have unlawfully entered a location. A person can be convicted of burglary in California for unlawful entry of a building. But he can just as easily be convicted of burglary for shoplifting. A person can enter a store legally to commit the crime of shoplifting. Therefore, federal law does not consider shoplifting to be “burglary” for purposes of counting it as a violent crime, because for federal law, the entry must be unlawful.  So, shoplifting is not a violent felony and does not count for ACCA.

The federal prosecutor wanted to count Descamps’ California burglary conviction toward the three necessary to trigger a conviction for ACCA.  But, because the California burglary law doesn’t say anything one way or the other about unlawfully entering a building, it was not apparent from the statute that Mr. Descamps had committed generic burglary or some other offense, like shoplifting.  So the trial court decided to examine documents related to the state burglary conviction to see if it could find out what Mr. Descamps had done.  After reviewing them it decided Decamps’ had unlawfully entered a building. Mr. Descamps was convicted under ACCA and sentenced to the 15-year mandatory minimum. Without these findings by the federal judge, though, the longest sentence Mr. Descamps could face under federal law was 10 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that this was wrong.  Because the California burglary statute does not require unlawful entry, it is not a predicate offense for purposes of ACCA.  A trial court cannot conduct its own examination of the documents from the state conviction to find out if the defendant unlawfully entered a building.  The Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Descamps’ California state burglary conviction could not be used against him. Because one of the crimes in Mr. Descamps’ case was thrown out, he is no longer guilty of ACCA and must be resentenced.

The Descamps opinion is good news for two reasons:

   (1) Now, when a felon in possession has a prior conviction for burglary where the law does not require unlawful entry of a building that prior conviction will not count toward an ACCA 15-year mandatory minimum.  We don’t know how many of these kinds of burglary laws there are in the states, or how many have been used to trigger ACCA convictions, but the government will no longer be able to use them, ever.

   (2) The decision is retroactive.  A conviction under ACCA requires that the person have at least three prior drug trafficking or violent felonies.  Because Descamps only had two qualifying priors, he was not guilty of being an Armed Career Criminal. Prisoners may be able to use the decision to challenge their convictions (and be resentenced) if

– They were convicted of ACCA; and
– One of the  three prior convictions that triggered the ACCA sentence was a state conviction for burglary, and 
– The state’s burglary law did not require unlawful entry of a building.

FAMM cannot tell you if you or your loved one is eligible to go back to court and get a sentence reduction.  We do not give legal advice or provide legal help.  If you have any questions about whether the Descamps decision affects your case, contact your lawyer or Federal Public Defender.