1. Whether the Ninth Circuit can find a missing element to be satisfied by using a modified categorical approach.
2. Whether imposition of the Armed Career Criminal Act should require a separate indictment and trial.
3. Whether the Ninth Circuit’s application of the modified categorical approach was a deviation from Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990) and Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13 (2005).
Matthew Descamps was sentenced to 262 months in prison after the Ninth Circuit found that he had committed his third violent felony, in violation of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The contested violent felony was a 1978 conviction for burglary of a California grocery store. Under the California burglary statute, one can be convicted of burglary without an explicit finding that entry into the burgled premises was itself unlawful. The element of unlawful entry is required under the generic burglary statute described in the ACCA. The Ninth Circuit found the “unlawful entry” element to be necessarily satisfied by the plea bargain agreed to by Descamps, thus subjecting him to the mandatory fifteen-year minimum prison sentence required under the ACCA. How the Supreme Court decides this case will determine how sentencing courts use factual assertions surrounding a prior conviction in situations where a violent crime as defined under the ACCA contains elements absent from the crime for which the defendant was convicted.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Whether the Ninth Circuit's ruling in United States v. Aguila-Montes De Oca, 655 F.3d 915 (9th Cir. 2011), (En Banc) that a state conviction for burglary where the statute is missing an element of the generic crime, may be subject to the modified categorical approach, even though most other Circuit Courts of Appeal would not allow it.
2. Whether is it time for this Court to overrule Almandez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998), apply Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 224 (2000), and require an Indictment and trial on the issue of application of the Armed Career Criminal Act.
3. Whether the Ninth Circuit's ruling in the instant case was in derogation of the requirements in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990) and Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13 (2005).
Petitioner Matthew Descamps was arrested on March 25, 2005 in Stevens County, Washington. Officers from the Stevens County Sheriff’s Department responded after receiving an emergency call that a handgun had been fired. Eyewitnesses later told police that a man had fired the gun into the radiator of a truck in which another man was sitting. Upon arriving at the scene, the officers saw Descamps driving away and the officers pursued him to a bus he used as a residence. Inside the bus, the officers found a handgun containing one fired round. During interrogation, Descamps admitted that he had drawn and fired the gun to scare the man in the truck, who owed Descamps $700 for methamphetamines.
Descamps was indicted in the Eastern District of Washington and convicted by a jury for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He was sentenced to 262 months in prison under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), which mandates longer sentences for offenders with three or more convictions for violent crimes. Descamps had prior convictions for a California first-degree robbery, a California burglary, and a Washington felony for harassment with intent to kill.
In the sentencing proceedings, Descamps argued that he should not be sentenced under the ACCA because his California burglary conviction did not meet the definition of burglary for the purposes of the ACCA. Specifically, in Taylor v. United States, the Supreme Court defined “burglary” as a crime “having the basic elements of unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Descamps was convicted, however, under California Penal Code § 459, which does not include the element of unlawful entry.
The district court applied the “modified categorical approach” and found that the burglary conviction met the ACCA definition of a violent felony. The court based its finding on the information from the burglary case, which described Descamps as unlawfully entering a building, and on the plea colloquy, which described Descamps’s actions as “breaking and entering.” On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the finding of the district court.
The central issue in this case is how a court should implement the so-called modified categorical approach set forth by the Supreme Court in Taylor v. United States for sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (“ACCA”). Petitioner Matthew Descamps argues that factual assertions that do not need to be proven as elements of the charged crime should not be considered, both for reasons of reliability and fairness. The United States urges that such concerns are unfounded as a practical matter. It argues for a factual inquiry into the underlying facts of a charged offense, arguing that to do otherwise might arbitrarily treat similar defendants differently.
Reliability & Fairness
Descamps argues that the Ninth Circuit’s approach is fundamentally unfair because the sentencing court will rely on facts that the defendant had no incentive to dispute at trial since they were not part of the crime charged and therefore had no legal relevance. Since only the elements that are part of the charged crime need to be proven to obtain a conviction, the defendant will likely only contest facts relevant to those elements. Moreover, the defendant may have a disincentive to argue nonessential facts because those facts ultimately do not matter. In addition, according to Descamps, it is only with respect to these facts that a defendant has constitutional and procedural safeguards at trial. Meanwhile, Descamps argues, other facts that are “collateral” to the offense charged are really nothing more than allegations and do not have any of the guarantees of reliability inherent in facts that comprise an element of the offense.
The United States responds that concerns about unreliable factual assertions being used in sentencing under the ACCA are misplaced. Instead, it argues, the modified categorical approach takes into account only those facts found by the jury or admitted to by the defendant, and will exclude “superfluous admissions.” This makes it highly unlikely, in the United States’ view, that the sentencing court will consider incorrect factual assertions. Moreover, the United States dismisses as “theoretical” the concern that there is no incentive for the defendant to dispute assertions that are not elements of the crime. It argues that there is no evidence that such incentives or lack thereof will actually impact a sentencing outcome in practice.
According to the United States, adopting an elements-only approach would undermine Congress’s purpose of treating similarly situated federal offenders the same, and would lead to arbitrary disparities in sentencing.
Descamps argues that the Ninth Circuit’s approach could disrupt the plea-bargaining process, particularly the reliance of defendants on the terms of the bargains they strike with prosecutors. As amici National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NADCL”) and National Association of Federal Defenders (“NAFD”) point out, prosecutors and defendants often reach agreements in which a defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense, resulting in benefits to both sides. Abandoning an elements-only approach, according to the NADCL and NAFD, would undermine the finality of these agreements. In their view, this would be both unfair to defendants and disrespectful of prosecutors’ discretion in enforcing the criminal laws of sovereign states. Moreover, asserts Descamps, a criminal defendant may actually have a disincentive to dispute such collateral facts for fear that contesting them may undermine his attempts to obtain a favorable plea bargain or to remain in the good graces of the court.
The United States responds that, in pleading guilty, a defendant waives some important constitutional rights, particularly regarding “erroneous deprivation of liberty.” This waiver, in its view, alleviates concerns about the reliability of the admissions made in the plea-bargaining process. Moreover, the United States points out that the assistance of counsel and the participation in a plea colloquy ensure that this waiver is made with an understanding of all the consequences, further guaranteeing the reliability of any admissions.
In sum, this case will have implications for the way a federal court sentencing a defendant under the ACCA may use factual assertions surrounding a prior conviction. In situations where a violent crime as defined under the ACCA contains elements absent from the crime for which the defendant was convicted, this case will determine the extent to which a sentencing court may inquire into collateral facts that might have some bearing on the missing elements. In particular, it may affect information gleaned from admissions made as part of plea bargains and plea colloquies.
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