How should sentencing courts determine whether a defendant has satisfied the predicate felonies necessary to mandate a higher minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act?
The Supreme Court will decide how a sentencing court using the “modified categorical approach” should determine if a defendant felon has satisfied the predicate felonies necessary to mandate a higher minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). Mathis argues that the “modified categorical approach” can be based only on the text of the state criminal statute as well as state court analysis of its elements, without regard to the court record or the means necessary to accomplish an element. The United States contends that the standard is simply that criminal statutes phrased in the disjunctive are divisible and that courts may then use court documents under the “modified categorical approach” to determine if the defendant was convicted of the generic crime. This decision will impact the severity of prison terms for many prior felons and has great repercussions for noncitizen felons.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Must a predicate prior conviction under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1), qualify as such under the elements of the offense simpliciter, without extending the modified categorical approach to separate statutory definitional provisions that merely establish the means by which referenced elements may be satisfied rather than stating alternative elements or versions of the offense?
In March 2013, Richard Mathis (“Mathis”) was accused of forcibly molesting a teenage boy. After the allegation was made, police obtained search warrants for Mathis’s residence. During the search, police found a loaded rifle and ammunition, a cell phone showing text message correspondence with many young males, as well as a memory card with an image of a nude, underage male. Mathis’s girlfriend later told police that she believed Mathis was having sex with underage males regularly in his home.
Mathis was arrested on March 8, 2013 and he confessed to owning the rifle and ammunition, as well as to being in possession of child pornography. Mathis was later indicted for one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Mathis pled guilty to the firearm charge on January 21, 2014. At sentencing, the district court was required to determine whether the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) applied. The ACCA mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for felons guilty of illegal possession of a firearm who have three prior violent felony convictions. The ACCA defines a “violent felony” to include the crime of burglary, if punishable by more than one year of prison. The generic crime of burglary is defined as entry into a building or structure with intent to commit a crime within. In making this determination, the court had to determine whether Mathis’s earlier burglary convictions amounted to “violent felonies.” Mathis had been convicted five times on burglary-related charges after he burglarized sheds and garages.
The district court determined that the relevant Iowa burglary statutes were divisible into nonviolent crimes, such as entry into a boat or automobile, as well as the generic crime of burglary. The district court then used a “modified categorical approach” to determine which elements of the statute Mathis was convicted under and found that those elements satisfied the generic crime of burglary. Alternatively, the court concluded that the burglaries could also be considered violent felonies under the residual clause of the ACCA, which defines state-specific crimes that are substantially similar to the generic crime as violent felonies.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reviewed the violent felony determination de novo. The Eighth Circuit agreed that the statute was divisible into violent and non-violent elements and that the modified categorical approach was the appropriate standard of review. The Eighth Circuit also concluded that burglarizing garages satisfied the generic offense of burglary because a garage is a building. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit found that Mathis had been convicted of three or more violent felonies and was therefore subject to the heightened prison term.
In this case, the Supreme Court will determine the proper circumstances under which a sentencing court may use the modified categorical approach to consider the applicability of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). Mathis contends that a sentencing court may only apply the modified categorical approach in circumstances where the statutory definition includes alternative elements, which results in a divisible statute where a jury may find a defendant guilty of several different crimes. Conversely, the United States argues that a sentencing court may apply the modified categorical approach to prior offenses, regardless of whether the statutory text sets out alternative means or elements.
Additionally, the Supreme Court will determine whether state statutes that are broader than the contours of the definition of the generic crime may constitute as a predicate crime under ACCA, specifically with respect to Iowa’s definition of burglary.. Mathis maintains that broad state statutes do not fall within ACCA’s predicate crimes. Alternatively, the United States contends that even if the state statute is broader than the generic definition, the sentencing court may ask whether the state statute consists of multiple alternate versions of the crime. The United States asserts that if one of the alternate versions sets out the generic offense, the statute is divisible and may constitute a predicate offense for the purposes of ACCA.
UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES MAY A SENTENCING COURT APPLY THE MODIFIED CATEGORICAL APPROACH?
Mathis contends that a court may apply the modified categorical approach to look at the underlying facts of a prior conviction only when a defendant was convicted under a divisible statute that lists multiple, alternative elements resulting in several different crimes. . To all other indivisible statutes, which list only alternative means of committing the same offense rather than elements of a crime, Mathis argues that a court must apply the strict categorical approach. Mathis claims that there is a distinction between the elements of an offense, which define the offense and must be specifically charged and proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, and means of an offense, which define how an element has been met but are legally extraneous. Mathis argues that a statutory offense that enumerates multiple means of committing one crime is indivisible because it merely lists a number of ways that an individual could commit a single crime and, therefore, sentencing courts should apply the categorical approach to ACCA predicate convictions. Conversely, Mathis states that a statutory offense that lists alternative elements is divisible because a prosecutor must set for the relevant elements from the enumerated list in an indictment and it is only in these circumstances that a sentencing court may use the modified approach to look at the underlying facts of the predicate convictions.
As a result, Mathis asserts that an ACCA predicate conviction is most often identified by the legal elements of the crime instead of the facts particular to the defendant’s case and so a sentencing court must use the categorical approach. Mathis points to the language in ACCA that states that a court may enhance a defendant’s sentence if the individual has three previous convictions for specified violent felonies. Accordingly, Mathis maintains that Congress enacted ACCA with the intention of allowing sentencing courts to ascertain whether a prior conviction constitutes a predicate offense by reviewing the statutory definition of the defendant’s previous convictions. Mathis contends that a sentencing court’s use of a modified categorical approach for a predicate offense with alternative means would contravene ACCA because it would allow a sentencing court to turn an element-based predicate offense analysis into a fact-based one. Furthermore, Mathis argues that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed this interpretation of reviewing the predicate offenses’ elements rather than underlying fact in cases such as Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13 (2005), and Descamps v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2276 (2013). Mathis contends that this approach would threaten a defendant’s Sixth Amendment protections because it would allow a sentencing court to re-examine the facts of a case that have already been decided up on by a jury of the defendant’s peers. Moreover, Mathis argues that this approach raises significant practical concerns, particularly with the amount of resources required to re-examine the facts of a case, as well as fairness concerns, including depriving defendants of the advantage of plea negotiations.
The United States contends, however, that a sentencing court may use the modified categorical approach to ascertain whether a prior conviction meets the requirements for ACCA if the statutory definition is divisible. The United States argues that a statute is textually divisible when it enumerates alternative methods of committing an offense, regardless of whether the statutory definition sets out alternative elements or means, converse to what Mathis argues is the proper analysis. To that end, the United States argues that state law does not require a separate inquiry into whether the alternatives listed in the statute constitute means or elements, in part because this very inquiry would result in a complex question of statutory interpretation. Rather, the United States asserts that federal district courts often apply the modified categorical test, which provides a bright line rule for determining statutes that are divisible and statutes that are not, to avoid deciding whether “a state legislature intended to require a jury to agree on a specific alternative when multiple alternatives are charged.” The United States maintains there would be no violation of the Sixth Amendment because the modified categorical approach allows a sentencing court to use only approved conviction documents instead of conducting its own fact-finding investigation.
HOW MAY THE COURT RECONCILE ACCA PREDICATE OFFENSES WITH STATE STATUTES?
Mathis contends, in line with his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Descamps, that the key analysis under ACCA is whether the jury was required to find all the elements in the defendant’s predicate convictions. . Mathis claims that a sentencing court may only find a predicate crime to fall within the requirements of ACCA if the state statute elements are the same as, or narrower than the generic offense. Specifically, Mathis argues that the Iowa burglary statute, which sets forth a single offense, is broader than generic burglary and, therefore, a conviction of such is not valid as an ACCA predicate crime. . In support of this argument, Mathis points to the two elements required to find a defendant guilty of burglary in Iowa; first, the type of place that can be burglarized and second, the place’s purpose or use. . Mathis maintains that this statute expands beyond the bounds of generic burglary because the Iowa statute permits convictions in a wide variety of contexts. . Accordingly, Mathis asserts that a state statute that goes beyond a generic offense does not fall within the confines of an ACCA predicate offense and, therefore, a sentencing court may not use these convictions to increase a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence. .
Conversely, the United States argues that a sentencing court’s determination that a state offense constitutes as a predicate offense under ACCA is based on the text of the statue as well as limited court documents for the prior conviction. In support of this argument, the United States asserts that if the state statutory definition of the prior offense is broader than the generic definition but one of the alternatives mentioned matches the generic definition, then the statute is divisible and the modified categorical approach may be applied. If state statutes that were broader than the generic definition of the offense could not be used for the purposes of ACCA, the United States contends that Congress’s intent of providing enhanced penalties for repeat offenders would be undermined. The United States maintains that Mathis’s approach would require federal district courts to determined the nuances of state law and would fail to reach state burglary convictions, such as Iowa. Therefore, the United States claims that a state statute that includes alternatives, where at least one alternative describes the generic offense, is divisible and a sentencing court may look at limited documents describing underlying facts to determine if the prior offense meets the requirements of an ACCA predicate offense.
In this case, the Supreme Court must determine the proper methodology used to determine whether the text of a state crime is divisible into separate elements. The outcome of this case could have a significant impact on the penalties that are imposed on noncitizen immigrant felons.
WEAKNESSES IN THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT METHODOLOGY
The National Association of Federal Defenders and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (collectively “NAFD”), on behalf of Mathis, first contend that the lower courts have wrongly been consulting court documents to determine if, under the state statute, the defendant was convicted of a generic crime for purposes of the ACCA. NAFD believes this method is wrong because it falsely assumes that the court documents will reflect the committed crime’s elements, when in fact most court records are unlikely to accurately distinguish between elements. NAFD contends that the implication of using the court record is that some statutes or crimes will wrongly be considered divisible and consequently some defendants will be erroneously subjected to heightened prison sentences. NAFD asserts that the divisibility determination should instead be based only on the state statute itself and, when unclear, federal courts should defer to state courts’ interpretations of whether a statute contains divisible elements or alternative means. If the state statute and case law is inconclusive, NAFD concludes that there should be a presumption of indivisibility in order to avoid Sixth Amendment concerns. NAFD asserts that this alternative methodology will not prevent culpable felons from facing enhanced prison sentences because the sentencing court may consider mitigating factors such as a prior criminal history in sentencing a defendant.
The United States argues that the modified categorical approach appropriately satisfies congressional objectives, while an alternative standard would frustrate that purpose and create practical difficulties for the courts. The United States believes that the Eighth Circuit standard of consulting the court record for unclear predicate crimes provides necessary clarity for courts to analyze state statutes that do not fit neatly within the federal definition. Moreover, the United States asserts that an approach that does not permit looking at the record will prevent many crimes that would, on their facts, qualify as violent felonies from being considered as such. The United States concludes that this is contrary to congressional intent.
IMPLICATIONS FOR IMMIGRATION
The American Immigration Lawyers Association, Immigrant Defense Project, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and others (collectively “AILA”), in support of Mathis, argue that the Supreme Court’s decision will have dramatic effects on the immigrant community, as noncitizens can be deported if they are convicted of an aggravated felony. AILA supports this contention with examples of several individuals who will likely face deportation because they have been convicted of “aggravated felonies” under the Eighth Circuit’s modified categorical approach, when the facts of the individual cases do not suggest that the individuals were convicted of generic aggravated felonies because the means used were broader than the federal definition. The amici further contend that if the Eighth Circuit’s version of the modified categorical approach is upheld, many noncitizens will be unable to afford the onerous costs of investigating the court record to determine if they were convicted of an aggravated felony and consequently they will be deported without regard to their predicate crime. Moreover, AILA asserts that the immigration system will become even more overburdened under the Eighth Circuit standard, as more citizens will face mandatory detention and removal proceedings resulting from convictions for seemingly aggravated felonies, when the means used did not actually satisfy the generic crimes.
The Immigration Reform Law Institute (“IRLI”), in support of the United States, argues that the Eighth Circuit modified categorical is in fact necessary to and benefits the nation’s immigration community. IRLI asserts that an alternative interpretation would have unintended consequences – namely, that many state statutes would be disqualified as “aggravated felonies” despite congressional intent for them to be considered. The institute also argues that many state statutes have different language from federal “generic” crimes that amounts to differing means, which would automatically prevent them from qualifying as aggravated felonies under a contrary interpretation. Finally, IRLI argues that, in order to provide effective representation of non-citizen clients, attorneys must be able to provide accurate expectations regarding the deportation consequences of a guilty plea. Given this obligation, IRLI contends that attorneys must be able to distinguish crimes that could lead to deportation using a bright line method, which the current Eighth Circuit standard provides. IRLI asserts that an alternative method may lead attorneys to incorrectly categorize crimes and unjustly subject those attorneys to ineffective assistance of counsel liability.
The Supreme Court will determine when a sentencing court may apply a modified categorical approach to decide whether a defendant has met the predicate offenses necessary to enhance punishment under ACCA. . Mathis argues that a court may only apply the modified categorical approach to a divisible statute that lists multiple, alternative elements resulting in several different crimes. . In opposition, the United States asserts that a court may use the modified categorical approach if the statutory definition is divisible. Furthermore, the Supreme Court will decide whether state statutes that are broader than the generic definition of the offense may constitute a predicate crime under ACCA.. While Mathis maintains that a broader state statute is not valid as an ACCA predicate crime, the United States contends that a state statute with listed alternatives may constitute an ACCA predicate crime if one of the alternatives matches the generic definition
- Nicholas Anderson and Linus Chan, Categorical Approach Returns to Supreme Court, crimmigration.com (Jan. 25, 2016).