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Supreme Court Rules in ACCA Case That Modified Categorical Approach Only Applies to Divisible Statutes with Alternative Elements

Today, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Descamps v. United States, (No. 11-9540) holding that the "modified categorical approach" of determining whether a prior conviction under a state statute qualifies as a violent felony under ACCA does not apply to statutes that have only one set of indivisible elements. 

In an 8-1 decision by Justice Kagan, with Justice Alito dissenting, the Court ruled that Descamps' conviction for California burglary under section 459 of the California Code does not qualify as a violent felony because the elements of the offense sweep more broadly than "generic" burglary, i.e., unlawfully entering a building, under ACCA.  In fact, the state statute is so broad as to cover shoplifting. The Court declined to apply the modified categorical approach, which would have permitted the examination of the underlying records of conviction to determine whether Descamps had actually unlawfully entered a building. Instead, the Court held that the modified categorical approach applies only to divisible statutes that set forth alternative elements.  Thus, whether Descamps admitted in his plea colloquy to breaking and entering was irrelevant because breaking and entering is not an element of section 459.

The Court reaffirmed the reasons for the elements approach set forth in Taylor: (1) it comports with the ACCA text and history; (2) it avoids Sixth Amendment concerns; and (3) it avoids the "practical difficulties and potential unfairness of a factual approach." 

The Court left open whether a sentencing court may look to judicial rulings interpreting a statute to determine its elements.  It also noted that the government forfeited the issue of whether California burglary qualifies as a violent felony under the residual clause.

Justice Thomas, concurred, reiterating his view that Almendarez-Torres, should be overruled. 

For more on the opinion, see this SCOTUSblog post.

 

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