October 9 Oral Arguments: Questions about the Armed Career Criminal Act

Tuesday, October 9 was Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s first day on the bench, and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases. (For a brief overview of these cases, click here.) As the New York Times reported, Chief Justice John Roberts began the day by welcoming the newest justice, stating “we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling.”

In the first case of the day, Stokeling v. United States, Stokeling had been sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), which imposes higher sentences for armed criminals who have previously been convicted of violent felonies. Stokeling’s primary argument is that a robbery charge under Florida law only requires slight force to overcome some form of resistance – “nothing more than the tightening of one’s hand momentarily on a dollar bill before releasing it” – and so should not automatically qualify as a previous violent felony under the ACCA.  Questions from the justices focused on line-drawing– exactly when forceful actions become substantial enough to be considered violent. Stokeling’s attorneys argued that the standard should not be a generic offense determination (e.g., all robberies are violent because they require some amount of force). Rather, the standard should be “a degree of force that is substantial enough to be reasonably expected to cause pain or injury in most cases;” a pinch or tap on the shoulder would not qualify, while shoving or hitting would. The appropriate test therefore would focus case-by-case on the perpetrator’s reasonable expectation of causing injury rather than on the actual injury sustained by the victim.

The Government argued that any time there is a physical struggle over a piece of property, however short-lived it may be, the act of overcoming the victim’s resistance should qualify as substantial force for a violent robbery – this is the common law definition of robbery, and was what Congress intended when it wrote robbery into the ACCA. The justices again focused on line drawing, specifically trying to pin down why bag-snatching, without more force than is necessary to remove the bag from a person’s hand or shoulder, should be considered “violent,” since SCOTUS had already decided (in Johnson v. United States) that the ordinary ldefinition of force should be used when trying to identify violent felonies. At times, the questioning from the Justices took a light tone, with Justice Sotomayor appearing to pinch Justice Gorsuch, and Chief Justice Roberts stating he has practiced wresting a dollar bill from a clenched fist with his law clerks, and regarding the force it takes, he remarked, “more than you might think.”

The Court also heard arguments in the consolidated cases of United States v. Stitt and United States v. Sims. Stitt and Sims were argued together as both cases involve the definition of burglary, as applied to non-permanent or mobile dwellings, for the purposes of an ACCA sentence enhancement. The Government argued that the Court should take a broad view of burglary – which at common law was aimed specifically at entering a dwelling – because over time states have “taken heed of the fact that people live in many different places.” Questions here focused on how a burglar would know that they were breaking into a “dwelling” if the statutes in question were broadly interpreted to include “anything capable of being lived in,” (for instance, a car) as the Government was advocating. The Government responded by arguing that a dwelling of this sort would need to be somehow “adapted for overnight accommodation,” a necessary limitation that would keep cars out of the definition of a mobile dwelling, even if someone occasionally sleeps overnight in their car.

The attorney’s for Stitt and Sims argued that the Court had already made clear that burglary under the ACCA could only be applied to buildings and structures, not vehicles, in Taylor v. United States (which created a “generic” definition of burglary for purposes of the ACCA). Using this definition, vehicles like RVs, sleeper vans, and sailboats with a sleeping compartment fall in the vehicle category because they are used for the primary purpose of transportation, with occasional or incidental overnight use. Further, “a core concept of criminal law is providing fair notice.” Therefore, someone breaking into one of these vehicles lacking “outward signs of current habitation” would not have fair notice that they were committing a burglary–the risk that the vehicle is occupied increases the chances of a violent altercation with the occupant–rather than simply breaking and entering, which is not included under the ACCA as a violent predicate crime.

The New York Times reports Justice Alito stated the Court has made “one royal mess,” out of the interpretation of the ACCA, and “maybe we ought to go back and correct our own mess.” Justice Kavanaugh, however, stated the law worked well in “typical” cases, such as when someone is repeatedly caught breaking into RV’s. He stated multiple convictions should put someone on notice that they “shouldn’t be possessing a firearm under federal law.”   

Written by Eva Dickey, ISCOTUS Fellow, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, edited by Matthew Webber, ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, and overseen by ISCOTUS Co-Director Carolyn Shapiro


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