United States v, Stitt, ___ U.S. ___, No. 17-765 and 17-766 (10 December 2018)
Armed Career Criminal Act; meaning of the statutory term “burglary”
The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii) provides that if a person unlawfully possesses or transports a firearm and has three previous convictions for a “violent felony,” then that person shall be imprisoned for not less than fifteen years, and the court shall not suspend the sentence or grant probation. In other words, 15 years is a mandatory minimum sentence. The ACCA defines “violent felony” to include burglary.
The question before the Court was whether the statutory term “burglary” includes burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation, in addition to the crime of breaking and entering a traditional, residential home.
This decision consolidates two cases in which defendants were convicted of burglary under state laws. The defendants contended that the state-law definitions of burglary exceed the ACCA’s definition of burglary, and, therefore, the sentencing courts could not impose the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.
One case concerned a Tennessee statute which defines aggravated burglary as “burglary of a habitation.” The statute further defines “habitation” to mean (1) any structure, including mobile homes or trailers, designed or adapted for overnight accommodation of persons; or (2) any self-propelled vehicle designed or adapted for overnight accommodation and actually occupied at time of entry.
The other case concerned an Arkansas burglary stature covering a “residential occupiable structure,” including a vehicle, building or other structure where a person lives or “is customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons whether or not a person is actually present.”
The Supreme Court said that the ACCA uses the word “burglary” to refer to a “generic crime.” Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 141 (2008). If the elements of burglary under a state statute are broader than the elements of “generic burglary,” then a conviction under the state statute is not burglary under the ACCA and cannot be used to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. Mathis v. United States, 579 U.S. ___, ___ (2016)(slip op. at 19). When enacting the ACCA, Congress intended a uniform definition of burglary that includes at least the classic, common law definition, namely, breaking and entering a dwelling at night with intent to commit a felony. Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 593 (1990). In addition, Congress intended the definition of burglary in the ACCA to include more than the classic common law definition. By excluding all places other than permanent, residential dwellings, the common law definition is too limited for modern law enforcement.
By the time the ACCA was passed in 1986, most States had expanded the meaning of burglary to include structures other than traditional dwellings. Congress intended the definition of burglary to reflect the generic sense in which the term was used in the criminal codes of most states at the time the Act was passed. Taylor, 495 U.S. at 598. In 1986, a majority of state burglary statures covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging. Therefore, the statutory term “burglary” in the ACCA includes burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation, in addition to the crime of breaking and entering a traditional, residential home.
The Supreme Court upheld Tennessee’s burglary statute. However, Arkansas’s statute covers burglary of “a vehicle . . . [i[n which any person lives.” That definition could be construed more broadly than generic burglary which does not cover ordinary vehicles. The wording of Arkansas’s statute might cover a car in which a homeless person occasionally sleeps, and that would not be generic burglary and not within the ACCA. The lower courts did not consider that possible construction of the Arkansas statute. Consequently, the Court remanded the Arkansas case for further proceedings.
Justice Breyer wrote the unanimous decision for the Court.
John Polk is a Special Counsel at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. John can be reached at [email protected]