What the Mathis SCOTUS Ruling Means in Regards to the Armed Career Criminal Act

Post Date: June 24, 2016

Mathis v. United States, No. 15-6092 (Decided June 23, 2016)

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years on someone convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm who has three prior serious drug and/or violent convictions, one which may be burglary [18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1)]. The Supreme Court has ruled that so-called “generic burglary” is the only kind of burglary that can be used as an ACCA prior. 

Generic burglary: unlawful entry into a building or other structure.

Criminal laws can be complicated and include different definitions and sections. Burglary laws can prohibit “generic burglary” but also “unlawful entry” into things that are not buildings, such as cars, trains, planes, and/or boats, etc.  For ACCA purposes, however, only generic burglary can be used as a basis for the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.


Is it “Generic Burglary”?

1. The “Categorical Approach”

The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that to determine if a prior burglary conviction is for generic burglary, courts must apply what is called the “categorical approach.”

Categorical approach: a court reads only the elements of the crime of conviction in the criminal law and determines if they match the definition of the crime (in this case, generic burglary)

Elements: things the government proves to a jury to secure a conviction

Elements are crucial to finding someone guilty; every single element of a crime must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury to find someone guilty. Elements are equally important at sentencing, after the jury verdict, when a judge determines whether the defendant had three prior convictions under ACCA.  Remember, for someone to be sentenced under ACCA, they must have three prior serious drug and/or violent offenses.

Courts using this “categorical approach” may not look at other documents, such as the indictment or police records, to find out if the defendant unlawfully entered a building rather than, for example, a car. If the government wants to use a prior burglary as one of the three priors needed to convict someone under ACCA, it must read the statute word for word and decide that the burglary law punishes only (1) an “entry” of (2) a “building or structure” which (3) was “unlawful.”  If the statute does not clearly state all of those three elements, then generic burglary is not defined and the courts can’t use a generic burglary conviction as one of the three prior convictions that leads to the ACCA fifteen-year mandatory minimum.

2. The “Modified Categorical Approach” Exception

Modified categorical approach: a court is allowed to examine other reliable legal documents (e.g., indictment, jury instructions, plea agreement) to determine if the person was convicted of generic burglary or not. Only generic burglary can be used to trigger ACCA.

The Court has made one exception for certain state statutes that define more than one set of elements for a burglary conviction. For example, a person can be convicted under the same law of burglary if she unlawfully entered a building or if she unlawfully entered a car.  When there are laws that set out alternative elements for burglary, the courts can take a “modified categorical approach” to determine which of the alternative elements the defendant was convicted of. The modified categorical approach permits a court to examine not only the words of the law, but also reliable legal documents that can shed light on whether the defendant was convicted of generic burglary or of another kind of burglary (ie: were they convicted of unlawfully entering a boat? Then this doesn’t count as generic burglary).


The Case of Mathis

In the case of Mathis, the Iowa burglary statute included more than generic burglary. It does not set out different elements. Rather, it says burglary can be achieved by different means. The Iowa burglary statute says that unlawful entry of any building, structure, OR land, water or air vehicle is illegal. To be convicted of burglary in Iowa, a jury need only specifically find that a person committed an unlawful entry but need not say of what was unlawfully entered in its findings. .

Illegal entry into any building or structure constitutes generic burglary– but illegal entry into a land, water, or an air vehicle would not be considered generic burglary. Since these types of unlawful entry would not qualify as generic burglary, this type of prior offense couldn’t be used to trigger ACCA.

Mr. Mathis was convicted in federal court for being a felon in possession of a firearm. After Mr. Mathis was convicted, the sentencing court had to determine if his prior convictions for burglary in Iowa were for generic burglary and thus count toward the three needed to trigger ACCA. At sentencing, the prosecutor successfully argued that the court should use the “modified categorical approach” and look at legal documents to determine if Mr. Mathis unlawfully entered a building or structure (rather than a car, boat or plane). The district court used the modified categorical approach and said Mathis’ priors were for generic burglary.  They were used to trigger ACCA and Mr. Mathis was sentenced to the ACCA mandatory minimum of fifteen years.


The Supreme Court Ruling

In overturning Mathis’s sentence, the Supreme Court ruled that a court may only use the “modified categorical approach” to determine generic burglary if it is clear that the original burglary statute stated separate sets of elements (ie: an “entry” of a “building or structure” which was “unlawful”).  Because the Iowa burglary statute stated a variety of ways to commit the crime of burglary but did not require the jury to make a finding about which way the burglary was committed, it may not be used for ACCA purposes. So, a court determining if a prior conviction for burglary where the statute has alternatives (ie: a boat, air vehicle, etc.) of a generic burglary must first determine if the alternatives are separate elements.  If so, the court can use the modified categorical approach and examine other reliable legal documents mentioned previously. If not, the statute may not be used.

If you think the Mathis decision could affect you, we encourage you to contact your federal criminal defense lawyer.