United States v. Stitt and United States v. Sims
Supreme Court will address bizarre consequences from a law designed to punish armed career criminals
The Armed Career Criminals Act was passed in 1984 after Congress recognized that a large portion of violent crimes were committed by a small percentage of repeat offenders. The law created a severe punishment (15 year minimum) for firearm possession for people who had three or more prior felony convictions for burglary and robbery. Those were the types of crimes generally associated with violence.
In its current version, the ACCA imposes the 15 year minimum on people who have three or more prior serious drug or violent felony convictions. Burglary is included as a violent felony, but the exact definition got dropped somewhere while the law was being amended. The Supreme Court since has filled in the definition. Taylor v. United States (1990).
Stitt and Sims, the defendants
This Supreme Court case consolidates two different cases from different regions of the country. The two cases contained the same issue.
Victor Stitt was convicted in Tennessee for burglary, and Jason Sims was convicted in Arkansas for burglary - each of them enough times that they would qualify for the mandatory minimum sentences for firearm possession. Then, once each was caught with firearms, their respective states imposed on them the 15 year minimum sentence.
However, both the Tennessee burglary definition and the Arkansas burglary definition are a tad broader than the definition the ACCA uses.
Tennessee and Arkansas define burglary to include intrusion into a vehicle that is habitable, like a mobile home, in addition to intrusions of buildings or other non-mobile structures. The ACCA only counts buildings or other non-mobile structures and specifically excludes vehicles - even vehicles meant to be used as residences.
The issue is whether Stitt and Sims’ prior burglary convictions can count under the ACCA if their convictions were for a broader version of burglary - a version of burglary that criminalizes actions the ACCA wouldn’t count.
But Stitt and Sims didn’t burglarize vehicles so why does it matter?
You would think you could just look at the defendants’ prior burglary convictions and see whether the had burglarized vehicles or just regular buildings. Stitt and Sims had done burglaries of regular structures, so it seems easy to conclude the ACCA definition would apply to their cases.
But it’s not always as simple as that. First of all, the courts need a rule for every case, and the ACCA was meant to come to a quick conclusion regarding past offenses. Courts need one definition that can be simply computed for each case based on the case’s outcome, not by reviewing all of the inner details. Once a court digs into the various factual issues of each case, it’s tricky to avoid improper consequences.
Suppose someone took a guilty plea for a prior burglary conviction. That means each factual aspect of the conviction may not even be in the record; and the person would not have had the opportunity to argue the question in full. Digging into the facts from past convictions would invite Sixth Amendment problems. The Justices discussed this situation in Descamps v. United States (2013), noting that when entering guilty pleas, people wouldn’t necessarily consider later consequences like under the ACCA.
Now that we are unwilling to parse the individual case records, we come back to some potential bizarre consequences. The government - the United States - argues that the ACCA definition is simply under-inclusive compared to the definitions of burglary in many states. Many of the states and the Model Penal Code include habitable vehicles in their definitions of burglary. If the ACCA wants to achieve its purpose, it shouldn’t allow for people with convictions in those states to get off on a technicality. The ACCA is supposed to threaten people who have engaged in violent acts in the past. The vehicle versus regular building distinction doesn’t relate to the violent nature of the crime at all, so the ACCA is missing out on its goal.
We’ll see if the Justices are able to craft a solution. Arguments will be heard on October 9, 2018.