Descamps v. United States Case Brief

Facts of the Case

Petitioner Descamps was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Government sought an ACCA sentence enhancement, pointing to Descamps’ three prior convictions, including one for burglary under., which provides that a “person who enters” certain locations “with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary.” In imposing an enhanced sentence, the District Court rejected Descamps’ argument that hisconviction cannot serve as an ACCA predicate becausegoes beyond the “generic” definition of burglary. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that its decision in, permits the application of the modified categorical approach to a prior conviction under a statute that is “categorically broader than the generic offense.” It found that Descamps’


Is Farmer entitled to damages or an injunction against various federal prison officials responsible for transferring her to, or assigning Farmer within, a prison facility where Farmer was sexually assaulted by another inmate?


“No. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion for the 8-1 majority. The Supreme Court held that Descamps’ ACCA enhancement was improper because a felony burglary conviction under the California Penal Code is not a generic burglary conviction. To count for sentence enhancement under the ACCA, a prior burglary conviction must at least match a conviction using the traditional elements of the offense: “breaking and entering a building.” The Court also held that the Ninth Circuit’s examination of Descamps’ burglary plea hearing transcript exceeded the purview of the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court reiterated that sentencing courts may only consult outside documents to ascertain the basis of the defendant’s conviction (“modified categorical approach”) when the statute defines elements in the alternative—for example, “breaking and entering a building [generic] or automobile [non-generic].” California’s burglary statute does not require “unlawful entry” as an element, or an alternative element, of the offense, so courts may not use the modified categorical approach. Allowing a sentencing court to determine, from the record, whether a defendant’s prior conviction could have satisfied the traditional elements of the offense “raises serious Sixth Amendment concerns,” Such as encouraging ill-advised guilty pleas.Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed with the majority opinion’s concern that defendants would enter guilty pleas or let certain facts go uncontested without considering the potential consequences under the ACCA. He also expressed concern over the burden the majority’s opinion places on state legislatures to revise their statutes. In his opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the ACCA framework amounts to a judicial factfinding expedition that runs counter to what is allowed by previous precedent. However, because the majority opinion limited the circumstances under which courts may consult documents relating to the defendant’s prior conviction, Thomas concurred in the judgment.Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion in which he contended that the majority opinion artificially limits the reach of the ACCA and treats similar convictions differently based solely on the arbitrary wording of state statutes. To remedy this problem, he argued that sentencing courts should always be permitted to consult the record to determine whether the defendant’s conviction matched the generic offense.”

Case Information

Citation: 570 US 254 (2013)
Granted: Aug 31, 2012
Argued: Jan 7, 2013
Decided: Jun 20, 2013
Case Brief: 2013