United States v. Stitt

Issues 

Does the definition of "burglary" under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 include the burglary of tents or vehicles used for overnight accommodation?

Oral argument: 
October 9, 2018

This case asks whether the definition of burglary under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) of 1984 includes nonpermanent or mobile structures used for overnight lodging. The ACCA’s definition of burglary was interpreted by the Supreme Court in Taylor v. United States, which defined burglary as any crime involving unlawful entry or unlawfully remaining in a structure or building with the intent to commit a crime. Respondents Victor Stitt and Jason Sims were previously convicted of burglary under their respective state statutes, which both defined burglary to include acts against mobile homes, trailers, tents, and other nonpermanent structures used for overnight accommodations. Now, the State contends Congress intended nonpermanent and mobile structures to be included within the ACCA’s definition of burglary, despite not being explicitly included in Taylor. On the other hand, Stitt and Sims contend that the Supreme Court in Taylor had the option of including language referencing nonpermanent and mobile structures and, by excluding it, established a line of case precedent that understands burglary to exclude such structures. The Court's decision in this case has implications on the rights of criminal defendants, as well as on existing protections for homeowners.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as “burglary” under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii).

Facts 

This case involves two Respondents, Victor Stitt and Jason Sims, from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, respectively.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

In 2011, during an argument, Stitt pulled a firearm on his girlfriend and threatened to kill her. U.S. v. Stitt, at 2. Stitt left the premises when a neighbor called the police and fled toward his mother’s trailer, where he later surrendered. Id. The detectives found Stitt’s firearm on the ground within his arm’s reach. Id.

In 2014, Stitt was tried at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee (the “District Court”) where a jury found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Id. During sentencing, the District Court designated Stitt as an armed career criminal, under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). Id. The ACCA applies when felons guilty of possessing a firearm have a record of convictions for at least three violent felonies or serious drug offenses. Id. at 3. Under the ACCA, a felon with such a record must be sentenced to a minimum of fifteen years of imprisonment. Id. The District Court, following the ACCA sentencing guidelines, sentenced Stitt to 290 months of imprisonment because Stitt had nine violent-felony convictions in Tennessee, including six for aggravated burglary. Id. at 1.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed Stitt’s conviction, but decided that only six of Stitt’s nine convictions would count as violent-felony convictions under the ACCA. Id. at 2.  According to the Sixth Circuit, three of Stitt’s convictions would not qualify as violent felonies under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Johnson v. United States, which found that the residual clause of the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague . Id.

Later, the Sixth Circuit, rehearing the case en banc, subsequently found that a conviction for aggravated felony under Tennessee law was not a violent felony under the ACCA because the Tennessee statute was broader than the Supreme Court’s definition of “generic burglary” and did not list alternative elements to define numerous crimes. Id. at 3, 10. The Sixth Circuit thus reversed Stitt’s conviction. Id. at 12. The Solicitor General filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on November 21, 2017, which the Supreme Court of the United States granted.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Jason Sims pleaded guilty before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (“the District Court”) to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). U.S. v. Sims, at 2. Sims had four prior convictions that qualified as violent felonies under the ACCA, namely two convictions for residential burglary and two for serious drug offences. Id. In consideration of these four prior convictions, the District Court, following the ACCA sentencing guidelines, sentenced Sims to 210 months of imprisonment. Id. at 3. Sims appealed, and on March 10, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit reversed the conviction and remanded the case for resentencing. Id.

The Eighth Circuit held that the definition of “residential burglary” under Arkansas law was broader than “burglary” under the ACCA, defined by the Supreme Court as “generic burglary.” Id. at 3, 5. The Solicitor General filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on November 21, 2017, which the Supreme Court of the United States granted.

Analysis 

 

TAYLOR’S DEFINITION OF BURGLARY UNDER THE ARMED CAREER CRIMINAL ACT

The United States contends that the Sixth Circuit’s ruling was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Taylor v. United States, in that the Taylor definition of burglary under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) includes nonpermanent and mobile structures adapted for overnight lodging within the meaning of “building” or “structure.” Brief for Petitioner, The United States at 16–17. The United States indicates that the various sources of law cited in Taylor to define burglary all point to inclusion of such structures. Id. at 17.

Firstly, the United States asserts that Taylor construed the ACCA’s definition of burglary to be based on the criminal codes of most states at the time the ACCA was enacted. They then point to how the criminal codes of most states at the time included nonpermanent and mobile structures adapted for overnight lodging in their definitions of burglary. Id. at 18–19. The  United States then argues that, during the 1986 ACCA amendments, forty-three states and the District of Columbia included nonpermanent or mobile structures in the definition of burglary in at least one of their statutes. Id. at 18. Furthermore, the United States claims that Taylor also based its burglary definition on the Model Penal Code, which explicitly includes vehicles, places, and structures adapted for overnight lodging in its definition of burglary. Id. at 20–21. Finally, the United States contends that Taylor also relied on a treatise by Professor Wayne LaFave that treated the inclusion of nonpermanent and mobile structures in the definition of burglary as commonplace. Id. at 22–24.

Stitt argues that Taylor recognized that Congress could not have intended to rely on state law’s definition of burglary, because burglary has never had a uniformly accepted meaning among the states. Brief for Respondent, Victor Stitt at 10.Stitt also rejects that Taylor intended to use the state statute at hand in Taylor, the Model Penal Code or Professor LaFave’s treatise as bases for the definition of burglary, given that Taylor considered but did not adopt the language of any of the sources. Id. at 9, 12–16. In line with this point, both Stitt and Sim argues that, since that stare decisis has special weight in cases of statutory interpretation and because the majority of circuit courts read Taylor to define burglary as excluding mobile structures, stare decisis weighs heavily in favor of excluding mobile structures. Id. at 22–24, 30–32; Brief for Respondent, Jason Sims at 9–10.

Stitt also contends that if Taylor’s definition of burglary is not upheld, the Court must hold that the ACCA’s sentencing model is unconstitutional, and violates the Sixth Amendment. Id. at 35. This would require overruling Almendarez-Torres v. United States, which Stitt claims unconstitutionally carved out an exception to the rule preventing judges from increasing the sentence for an offense beyond the statutory maximum. Id. Sims contends that Almendarez-Torres should be overruled because it breaks with historical jurisprudence holding that a defendant cannot be given a harsher sentence on the basis of any fact not proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Brief for Respondent, Jason Sims at 41–43.

TAYLOR’S INTERPRETATION OF CONGRESSIONAL INTENT

The United States argues that the Supreme Court in Taylor understood Congress’s intent in enacting the ACCA was to favor a broad understanding of burglary under the belief that burglary was an inherently dangerous crime. Brief for Petitioner, The United States at 25. The United States also contends that Congress enacted the ACCA in response to data indicating that the majority of robbery and burglary offenses were committed by repeat “career criminals.” Id. at 25. The United States argues that Congress’s intentions in enacting the ACCA apply in equal force to burglary of permanent and nonpermanent structures because they are targeted for violent crimes and property offenses with equal frequency, and therefore that burglary should be construed to include both for the purposes of the ACCA. Id. at 24–27.

Stitt, however, contends that, since the original ACCA issued in 1984 included a definition of burglary, it is likely that the definition of burglary was unintentionally deleted during the act's amendment in 1986, as the original ACCA included. Brief for Respondent, Victor Stitt at 8. Given this, Stitt argues, Congress never meant for the statute to include nonpermanent or mobile structures, as the original definition did not include them. Brief for Respondent, Victor Stitt at 8. Stitt also points to the fact that that no Congressional proposal for amendment of the definition of burglary in the ACCA since Taylor—of which there were many—included language about nonpermanent or mobile structures. Id. at 8–9, 16–19. Stitt specifically points out that Congress made fifteen attempts over a period of four years to reintroduce the original deleted definition of burglary, including the word “building.” Id. at 16–19. This, Stitt claims, corroborates that Congress never intended to broaden the definition of burglary to the United States’ definition. Id. Sims further argues that Congress must have approved of the Taylor holding, as Congress not make efforts to alter the limitation of burglary. Brief for Respondent, Jason Sims at 16–18.

FUNCTION OF STRUCTURES AND RISK OF HARM

The United States argues that the Sixth Circuit misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s holding in Taylor by reading Taylor to focus on the nature of a structure, rather than the structure’s use, when deciding whether the structure ought to be included in the ACCA’s definition of burglary. Brief for Petitioner, The United States at 37–38. The United States contends that there is no support for this conclusion from the Taylor opinion, and notes that that the nature and use of a structure are interrelated, given that a structure will likely be physically altered for uses such as overnight lodging. Id. at 37–38. The United States further asserts, in response to the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation of Taylor, that a definition that takes function into consideration better fits with Congress’s intention to prevent violence. Id. at 29–31. The United States argues it would be counterintuitive for permanent buildings where people cannot sleep to be included in the definition of burglary where nonpermanent dwellings would be excluded. Id. at 29–31.

Stitt rejects the United States’ assertion that the definition of burglary ought to take the structure’s use and points to the way in which the Taylor Court had the opportunity to adopt such a definition at the suggestion of the petitioner in that case, but did not do so. Brief for Respondent, Victor Stitt at 10–12. Stitt asserts that the Taylor holding explicitly differentiated between the first-degree or aggravated burglary and generic burglary for the purposes of the ACCA because of the former's increased risk of harm to victims. Id. Stitt contends then that to use the United States’ definition of burglary based on potential harm would directly contradict Taylor, and thus asks for the harm-based definition to be rejected. Id. Sims, arguing in the alternative, contends that the odds of harm are lower for burglaries of mobile structures than with standing homes because the owners are less likely to be present. Brief for Respondent, Jason Sims at 22–24. Sims claims Congress only intended to group offenses of a similar risk level in the ACCA, and that therefore nonpermanent and mobile structures should be excluded. Id.

Discussion 

DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN BURGLARIES OF MOBILE HOMES AND BURGLARIES OF BRICK-AND-MORTAR HOMES

The United States argues that leaving mobile home and RV burglaries out of ACCA’s scope would result in a statutory gap, as "burglary" must include any place that one intends to use as a home. Brief for Petitioner, United States at 26.  Indeed, according to the United States, there is no difference between the invasion of a house and that of a mobile home. Id. A burglary, the United States explains, is no less harmful because the home is not permanent, or not in brick-and-mortar. Id. at 19–20.

Similarly, the United States argues, it would be unjust to punish a defendant who burgled a permanent but obviously unoccupied structure more than a defendant who burgled a mobile or temporary but obviously occupied structure. Id. at 29–31. Additionally, relying on studies and data, the United States explains that mobile homes are “roughly 6.4% of all [housing] units” within the United States and that, just like immovable houses, mobile homes are the target of burglaries and other crimes against property. Id. at 26. Ultimately, the United States declares, the law should protect “the humble tenant in his tent as well as his more fortunate neighbor in his palace.” Id. at 19.

The  National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), in support of Stitt, contends that courts should, as a bright-line rule, look at the objective nature of the place rather than its intended use. Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), in support of Respondents at 19–21. Any other definition, the NACDL argues, would be vague and create confusion, which is inconsistent with due process, the Fifth Amendment, and the rule of lenity. Id. at 22–23; Brief for Respondent, Victor Stitt at 31–33. Indeed, NACDL explains, since state burglary statutes have different wording, any definition other than an objective one might lead to confusion and inconsistency across different courts. Brief of NACDL at 22.

QUALIFYING BURGLARIES AS INHERENTLY VIOLENT CRIMES

The United States argues that “aggravated” or “especially dangerous” types of burglaries encompass burglaries against a dwelling because such burglaries might endanger a person living on the premises at the time of the burglary, noting that when Congress enacted the ACCA, it viewed burglaries as the “most damaging crimes to society. Brief for Petitioner, The United States at 25, 30. Additionally, the United States asserts that burglary of movable homes such as tents, cars, or mobile homes, are more likely to result in violence than burglaries of immovable homes, as burglars cannot enter or escape unnoticed from movable homes. Id. at 26–27. The United States concludes that a narrow definition of “burglary” under the ACCA would reward burglars who are just as dangerous as burglars of immovable homes. Id. at 26.

In support of Stitt, the National Association of Federal Defenders (“NAFD”) argues that burglaries are not inherently violent crimes. Brief of Amicus Curiae The National Association of Federal Defenders (“NAFD”), in support of Respondents at 8. First, the NAFD notes that states have traditionally classified burglaries as offenses against property and not against people. Id. at 11. Second, according to the NAFD’s analysis of data from the report from Richard Culp and others (“the Culp Report”), the National Incident Based Reporting System (“NIBRS”) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (“NCVS”), burglaries rarely result in violence or threats of violence against an individual. Id. at 8–9. Additionally, the NAFD contends that, when burglaries result in violence, the violence usually triggers a conviction for another offence. Id. at 10. Therefore, the NAFD explains, qualifying burglaries as violent offences would result in counting twice the violent conduct. Id. According to the NAFD, it would be unfair to defendants to receive two ACCA-qualifying convictions for one single violent event that occurred in the course of a burglary. Id.

Edited by 

Acknowledgments 

Additional Resources 

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