20 June 2013

Law in Plain English: Descamps v. United States

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Descamps v. United States

Descamps was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The maximum possible sentence was ten years with no mandatory minimum. However, the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) dictates a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a mandatory minimum of fifteen years for three prior convictions for a violent felony. One of Descamps's prior felonies was a burglary conviction from California in 1978. However, California's burglary statute did not require an element that the entry was unlawful. As a result, it was unclear if the felony was "violent." To address this issue, the 9th Circuit decided that during sentencing, a federal judge can look to charging documents to determine whether the felony was violent (this is referred to as the "modified categorical approach"). The question before the Court was whether the Ninth Circuit’s decision that a state conviction for burglary where the statute is missing an element of the generic crime, may be subject to the "modified categorical approach." In a 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the "modified categorical approach" does not apply to statutes that contain a single indivisible set of elements. As a result, the Ninth Circuit's decision was reversed and Descamps sentence enhancement was improper. The practical impact of this decision is that it will now be more difficult for the government to use the facts of a prior conviction to enhance a federal criminal sentence.
Post a Comment