Shepard v. United States

PETITIONER:Reginald Shepard
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:City of New London Town Hall

DOCKET NO.: 03-9168
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 13 (2005)
GRANTED: Jun 21, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 08, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 07, 2005

John P. Elwood – argued the cause for Respondent
Linda J. Thompson – argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

Reginald Shepard pled guilty to violating the federal statute prohibiting a felon from possessing a gun. The government argued Shepard’s sentence should be enhanced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The act added at least a 15-year sentence for any felon with three or more “violent felony” convictions who then possessed a gun. The government argued at least five of the 11 breaking and entering convictions on Shepard’s record were violent felonies. The ACCA listed “burglary” as a violent felony and in Taylor v. U.S.(1990) the U.S. Supreme Court said the act meant “generic burglary” of a “building or other structure.” However the Massachusetts burglary law Shepard pled guilty to breaking gave burglary a nongeneric definition – including entry into non-structures like cars. Shepard argued he had not pled guilty to generic robbery. The federal district court refused to sentence Shepard under the ACCA. The First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and said the district court must consider evidence that showed it was obvious to Shepard that he pled guilty to generic robbery. The district court refused. The First Circuit reversed and sentenced Shepard under the ACCA.


May a court sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act look to police reports or complaint applications to determine whether an earlier guilty plea necessarily admitted, and supported a conviction for, generic burglary?

Media for Shepard v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 08, 2004 in Shepard v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 07, 2005 in Shepard v. United States

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Justice Souter has the opinion of the Court to announce in Shepard versus United States, No. 03-9168.

David H. Souter:

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

The Armed Career Criminal Act provides that anyone convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm who has three prior convictions for violent crimes must be sentenced to at least 15 years in prison.

The statute defines violent crime who include burglary.

In a 1990 case, Taylor against the United States, we interpreted the law’s use of burglary to cover only what we then called generic burglary, by which we basically meant a burglary that involved entry into a building rather than a car or a boat or whatnot.

In Taylor, the defendant’s prior burglary conviction had occurred in a state with a statute providing that burglary included entries into boats and railroad cars as well as into buildings.

The state statute, in other words, criminalized both non-generic and generic burglary.

How then was the a sentencing someone under the Armed Career Criminal Act supposed to tell whether a burglary conviction in a state like that was the generic burglary which counted under the Act or non-generic burglary which did not count?

We said that a conviction under a state statute that criminalizes both generic and non-generic burglary accounts for the 15-year minimum under the Act if the charging document and the jury instructions from the earlier trial show that the jury necessarily had to find a generic burglary in order to convict the defendant.

The petitioner in this case, Reginald Shepard, pleaded guilty in Federal Court to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The Government argued its sentencing that Shepard had at least three burglary convictions that counted against him under the Act and so had to receive the 15-year mandatory minimum.

The District Court said no, however, noting that each of the prior burglary convictions occurred in Massachusetts, the state with a non-generic burglary statute and each followed a guilty plea rather than a trial.

The charging document in each case did not limit the charge to generic burglary and because there was no trial, there were no jury instructions that showed Shepard’s conviction was necessarily for generic burglary.

Although the Government contended that the police reports and complaint applications from those prior convictions showed that each one involved entry into a building and thus was a generic burglary.

The District Court concluded that Taylor did not permit her to examine such documents.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and remanded the case for a review of the police reports and complaint applications.

The District Court conducted the review and again declined to impose the sentence concluding that the documents did not provide the necessary assurance that Shepard had pleaded guilty to three generic burglaries.

The Court of Appeals reversed again and ordered the imposition of the 15-year minimum.

We granted certiorati and in an opinion filed today with the Clerk of Court, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Although Taylor involved prior burglary convictions obtained after jury trials rather than guilty pleas, the Armed Career Criminal Act gives no indication that the two types of prior convictions should be treated differently and the reasoning of Taylor itself is not limited to prior jury convictions.

In the context of prior jury convictions, Taylor, as mentioned, allows sentencing courts to examine the indictment and the jury instructions.

Taylor referred to indictments and in jury instructions for a specific reason, namely, that they can show that the jury necessarily had to find a generic burglary in order to convict.

In the context of prior of guilty pleas, we conclude that the need to show that a conviction was necessarily for generic burglary limits courts to examining, in addition to the charging documents, the written plea agreement, the transcript of the plea colloquy and any explicit factual findings by the Trial Court to which the defendant assented.

Police reports and complaint applications cannot show that a later guilty plea was necessarily to generic burglary.

The Government urges us to allow a more wide-ranging inquiry, but its arguments in favor of such an approach are inconsistent with Taylor and thus amount to a call to move away from that decision.

Since Taylor was a case of statutory interpretation, the usual demands of sticking to precedent are very strong.

We also believe that relaxing the standard as the Government asks us to do would take trial judges dangerously close to fact finding of a sort that a defendant has a constitutional right to insist that a jury make.

Justice Thomas joins all but part three of the opinion and he has filed and opinion concurring in part and conruccing in the judgment; Justice O’Connor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Kennedy and Breyer join.

The Chief Justice took no part in the decision of this case.