James v. United States

PETITIONER: Alphonso James, Jr.
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Central District of California

DOCKET NO.: 05-9264
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 550 US 192 (2007)
GRANTED: Jun 12, 2006
ARGUED: Nov 07, 2006
DECIDED: Apr 18, 2007

Craig L. Crawford - argued the cause for Petitioner
Jonathan L. Marcus - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

When Alphonso James was convicted of firearm possession after having been convicted of a felony, the government sought an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The ACCA allows for a minimum 15-year sentence if the convicted criminal has three prior convictions for serious drug offenses or violent felonies. A "violent felony" under the ACCA includes burglary and "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." James had previously been convicted once for attempted burglary and twice for drug trafficking, so the government argued that he had the necessary three "countable" convictions for the increased sentence. James argued that one of his drug-related convictions did not count as a serious drug offense, and that attempted burglary did not count as a violent felony. A federal District Court held that attempted burglary was a violent felony, but also that James's drug offense was not serious. Therefore, James had only two countable offenses and could not be sentenced under the ACCA.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and held that James's drug-trafficking offense was serious. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the District Court that attempted burglary counted as a violent felony, a ruling that put it at odds with other Circuits. The Circuit Court ruled that attempted burglary is a violent felony because it presents as much risk of violence as a successful burglary.


Does a conviction for attempted burglary qualify as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act?

Media for James v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 07, 2006 in James v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 2007 in James v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Alito has the opinion this morning in case 05-9264, James v. United States.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Petitioner Alphonso James pleaded guilty in Federal Court to possessing a firearm after being convicted of the felony.

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act or ACCA, James was subject to a mandatory sentence of 15 years if he had three prior convictions for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.

Because James had two prior drug convictions whether he received the mandatory minimum turned on whether the third prior conviction for attempted burglary under Florida law qualified as a violent felony.

The Court of Appeals held that it did and we affirm.

The provision of ACCA at issue 18 U. S. C. Section 924 (e)(2)(B)(ii) defines a violent felony to include burglary, arson or extortion, crimes that involve the use of explosives or offenses that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to others.

In Taylor v. United States we held that in evaluating an offense under ACCA we look not to the actual conduct of the defendant in the case at hand but rather to the elements of the crime for which the defendant was convicted.

Under this categorical approach we turned to Florida law to determine whether it defines attempted burglary in such a way that it provides the requisite serious threat of physical injury.

In order to be convicted of attempted burglary under Florida law defendant must commit an overt act directed toward entering or remaining in a structure.

Mere preparation like casing a neighborhood or obtaining burglars’ tools is not enough in determining whether attempted burglary as defined by Florida law poses the requisite risk under ACCA.

We can look to whether it presents risks comparable posed by the most analogues of the enumerated offenses here actual burglary.

Both attempted burglary and completed burglary pose the same sort of risk which arises not from the completion of the braking but rather from the chance that some third party whether a homeowner police officer or pacifier might witness the crime in progress and attempt to intervene resulting in a physical confrontation with would be burglar.

This risk is present when the defendant is at the doorstep as well as after the defendant has gained entry.

Indeed the risk posed by attempted burglary may even be greater than that posed by completed burglary.

All burglaries begin as attempts and when the attempt fails to ripe in into completion it is often because some outside party intervened.

Of course, one can imagine some attempted burglaries that would not pose a serious risk of physical injury for example,an unarmed burglar entering a remote an unoccupied house that ACCA does not require certainty only a potential risk of serious physical injury.

The proper question is whether the conduct encompassed by the element of the offense in the ordinary case presents a serious potential risk of injury to another, attempted burglary meets the standard.

We therefore conclude that attempted burglary as defined by Florida law qualifies as a violent felony under ACCA and we therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg have joined.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.