Descamps v. United States

PETITIONER: Matthew R. Descamps
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington

DOCKET NO.: 11-9540
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Aug 31, 2012
ARGUED: Jan 07, 2013
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2013

Benjamin J. Horwich - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Dan B. Johnson - for the petitioner (appointed by the Court)

Facts of the case

On September 13, 2007, a jury found Matthew R. Descamps guilty of felony possession of a firearm and ammunition. Descamps already had five previous felony convictions. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA"), criminals with three prior convictions for violent felonies must receive a minimum sentence of 15 years for any subsequent felony conviction. The ACCA defines a violent felony as any crime involving threatened use of physical force—or burglary—and punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington concluded that Descamps' prior convictions of robbery, burglary, and felony harassment constituted three predicate violent felonies under the ACCA. Subsequently, the district court sentenced Descamps to 262 months in custody with 5 years of supervised release.

Descamps appealed his sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that all prior convictions used to enhance a sentence under the ACCA must be charged in the indictment and submitted to a jury. A judge may only increase the sentence if the three prior convictions are proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The appellate court disagreed and affirmed the sentence.


Did the United States properly plead and prove the defendant's prior violent felony convictions for application of an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act?

Media for Descamps v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 07, 2013 in Descamps v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 2013 in Descamps v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case 11-9540, Descamps versus United States.

Elena Kagan:

This is a case about a federal statute called ACCA, the Armed Career Criminal Act, possibly not what you're here for this morning.

ACCA, we've had many disagreements about ACCA over the years, I think one thing we would all agree on is that ACCA is not a very well written statute.

And because it's not very well written, it's hard to apply and because it's hard to apply, it takes up a lot more of our time than we would like.

So, what is ACCA?

ACCA is a sentence enhancer. Certain people who are convicted of being a felon with a firearm that usually has a 10-year maximum sentence, but that sentence can get enhanced if the person has committed three violent felonies.

And it can get enhanced by quite a bit so that the sentence ends up, in this case, more than double what it otherwise would be.

The question that ACCA often presents is how we figure out whether a prior felony is one of the three prior felonies that you can count under ACCA.

What the statute does is it lists a number of crimes.

It lists burglary and arson and extortion.

Who knows why those three and then it has something called a “residual clause”, sort of a kitchen sink clause, which gives us a lot of difficulties too, but this case is about one of the listed crimes.

It's about burglary and what you might think is, “Well, that's pretty easy.

All you have to do was look to see whether a person has been convicted of burglary and that gets counted as one of the three,” what are called “predicate offenses,” but in fact, it's not that easy for reasons that this case demonstrates.

That is because different states define burglary very differently.

So in some states, it's like the classic breaking and entering, and that we think is exactly the kind of violent felony that Congress meant to count as one of these three predicate offenses.

But in some cases, in some states, burglary covers a much wider range of conduct.

It also covers shoplifting.

And we think actually that that's not the kind of thing that Congress meant to count to so greatly enhance peoples' sentences and that's what's true in this case.

The California burglary statute, which this case is about, defines burglary very widely to include not just breaking and entering but also to include shoplifting.

And the question that we've encountered is what to do with the statute like that.

There are two approaches that you can follow: The first approach is called the “factual approach”.

Let's call it.

And that would involve looking to what the person actually did to try to figure out whether the person, in fact, did something that looks like breaking and entering or did something that looks like shoplifting.

But we've explained in many opinions that there are real problems with that approach.

And the problems are, we don't think Congress meant for us to take that approach.

We've looked at the text of the ACCA statute and it seems as though that's not what Congress had in mind.

We've said that there are real constitutional problems with that approach as well because it would involve judges making determinations about what a defendant actually did, but in our system, properly belong to juries.

So we said that that's another problem with it and we've said also that there are real practical problems with it because it's hard to figure out what somebody actually did sometimes many, many, years ago, many decades ago even, it's inefficient and it may very well be unfair.

So, instead of adopting that approach, we've adopted something called the “categorical approach” and what we do is we figure out something that we called the “generic crime of burglary”.

We say, “What's mostly what burglary is?”