Quarles v. United States

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Quarles v. United States .


Does burglary, which is a predicate offense triggering enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, require that a defendant form an intent to commit a crime at the time of first unlawful entry into a building, or does it allow for the formation of intent at any time in which the defendant remains in the building?

Oral argument: 
April 24, 2019

In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether parts of the Michigan third-degree home invasion statute fall under the Armed Career Criminal Act’s (“ACCA”) definition of “burglary.” Specifically, the Court will determine at what point in time a defendant who unlawfully enters a building must form the intent to commit another crime. Petitioner Jamar Alonzo Quarles argues that a defendant must form the intent to commit another crime at the initial moment of unlawful entry or unlawful remaining in a structure, in order for his or her conduct to qualify as burglary. Respondent United States contends that it is sufficient that a defendant develops the intent to commit another crime at any point while unlawfully remaining in the structure. This case will impact the number of criminal defendants subjected to enhanced sentencing under the ACCA.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether Taylor v. United States’ definition of generic burglary requires proof that intent to commit a crime was present at the time of unlawful entry or first unlawful remaining, as two circuits hold; or whether it is enough that the defendant formed the intent to commit a crime at any time while “remaining in” the building or structure, as the court below and three other circuits hold.


Petitioner Jamar Alonzo Quarles pleaded guilty in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). According to 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2), a court may impose a zero- to 120-month sentence if a defendant was previously convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). And the court must increase this sentence to 15 years to life if the defendant has “three previous convictions” for “a violent felony or a serious drug offense.” This sentencing increase is mandated by the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (“ACCA”), which is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). Under the ACCA, one definition of a “violent felony” is a crime punishable by more than one year of imprisonment—that is, among other listed felonies, a “burglary,” or, under the residual clause, a crime that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

At Quarles’s sentencing, the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Office (“Probation Office”) encouraged the district court to apply the ACCA sentencing enhancement. The Probation Office determined that Quarles had committed three prior “violent felonies,” including a 2001 conviction for third-degree home invasion in Michigan. Quarles protested the ACCA sentencing enhancement, arguing that the home invasion offense did not satisfy the elements of generic “burglary” under the ACCA and therefore was not a “violent felony.” Instead of determining whether the third-degree home invasion offense constituted a “burglary” for ACCA purposes, the district court concluded that the home invasion offense was a “violent felony” under the ACCA’s residual clause. Accordingly, the district court sentenced Quarles to 204 months in prison. In light of a 2015 Supreme Court holding that the ACCA’s residual clause was unconstitutionally vague, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit later vacated Quarles’s sentence and remanded the case to the district court for resentencing.

On remand, the district court was tasked with determining whether Michigan’s third-degree home invasion offense constituted a “burglary” for ACCA purposes. Because the ACCA does not define “burglary,” the district court looked to the Supreme Court’s generic definition of “burglary” articulated in Taylor v. United States. There, the Court had defined burglary as “any crime . . . having the basic elements of unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” This definition caused confusion among the federal circuit courts of appeals, specifically over how to interpret the temporal dimensions of the “intent” element.

Quarles argued that the home invasion does not satisfy the Taylor definition of burglary because, unlike “generic burglary,” Michigan’s third-degree home invasion offense does not require proof of intent at the moment of entry. The district court disagreed with Quarles’s interpretation, and on May 16, 2016, re-imposed his 204-month sentence. Quarles appealed the district court’s decision to the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and denied Quarles’s petition for a rehearing en banc.

Quarles filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on November 24, 2017. On January 11, 2019, the Supreme Court granted the petition to resolve the circuit split over the “intent” element of generic burglary under the ACCA.



Petitioner Jamar Alonzo Quarles argues that, at common law, burglary required contemporaneous intent, such that a defendant must have intended to commit another crime at the same time he or she unlawfully entered a structure. Quarles notes that, under Taylor, the ACCA encompasses a generic meaning of burglary that includes “entry into or remaining in” a structure with the intent to commit a crime. According to Quarles, a defendant’s “remaining in” a structure refers to a discrete moment in time—the initiation of the trespass, i.e., the moment a defendant’s stay goes from lawful to unlawful—rather than to a continuous condition. To broadly construe “remaining in” as a continuous condition, Quarles argues, would make the “entry” language in the statute superfluous, because any instance of “entry” would also be an instance of “remaining in.” Furthermore, Quarles contends, Taylor’s use of the word “with” in the phrase “with intent to commit a crime” means that the intent must exist alongside the “entry” or “remaining.” Thus, Quarles concludes, the ACCA’s definition of “burglary” includes this contemporaneous-intent requirement, whereby the intent to commit a crime must exist at the single moment in which the defendant either enters or remains inside a structure. As a result, Quarles claims, the Sixth Circuit was incorrect when it concluded that a defendant’s intent could develop at any point while he or she was unlawfully within a structure.

Quarles also asserts that a majority of states, in fashioning their burglary laws, adopted the common law contemporaneous-intent requirement. To support this claim, Quarles points to both English and American common law. Quarles also looks to the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code and criminal law treatises (both of which were used by the Taylor court in its interpretation of “burglary”), to argue that the contemporaneous-intent requirement was widely accepted at the time of the ACCA’s enactment. To emphasize this point, Quarles introduces a 1986 summary of the burglary laws of all states, which, he claims, reflects the states’ dominant tendency to adopt the contemporaneous-intent requirement. According to Quarles, because a majority of states retained the contemporaneous-intent requirement, erasing that requirement from the ACCA’s definition of “burglary” would make the ACCA’s use of the term “burglary” unconstitutionally vague, and invite arbitrary enforcement of the statute.

Respondent the United States does not argue against the contemporaneous-intent requirement; rather, the United States contends that the contemporaneous-intent requirement is satisfied when an intruder forms an intent to commit a crime at any point in which he or she is unlawfully inside a structure. To support its interpretation, the United States appeals to the plain language of Taylor and focuses on the word “remaining.” The United States argues that the plain meaning of “remaining” implies the continuous activity of staying inside a structure, and does not indicate, as Quarles contends, a discrete moment in time. To support its argument, the United States points to the dictionary definition of “remains,” the Court’s interpretive history of the word “remains,” and the law of trespass—where “remaining” on land refers to the entire time during which an intruder stays on the land—as illustrations of the continuous nature of the act of “remaining.”In response to Quarles’s claim that “entry” would be rendered superfluous if “remaining” were to be read as a continuous condition, the United States counters that “entry” would still cover instances of burglary in which intruders only briefly entered a building, or where they broke the threshold of the building’s exterior with a body part.

Additionally, the United States argues that when the ACCA was enacted in 1986, state burglary laws endorsed the continuous meaning of “remaining,” such that a criminal intent could be formed at any point while a defendant remained in a structure. The United States looks to dozens of 1986 state burglary statutes that criminalized “remaining in.” According to the United States, none of the state statutes fail to criminalize a situation where a defendant formed the criminal intent while remaining in a structure. Those statutes that do address such a situation, the United States contends, explicitly criminalized a broad understanding of “remaining,” such that the intent element of each statute is satisfied if a trespassing defendant formed the criminal intent at any point that he or she remained in a structure. The United States also posits that Quarles’s reliance on a summary of 1986 state burglary laws is misguided. Specifically, the United States suggests that Quarles relies on a number of states that did not prohibit “remaining” burglary at all, which means that these states’ burglary laws are irrelevant in this case. Finally, the United States asserts, Quarles’s summary overlooks a number of more recent developments, in which a number of states have adopted the continuous meaning of “remaining.”


Quarles argues that interpreting the intent element as requiring contemporaneous intent aligns with Congress’s purpose in enacting the ACCA. Quarles contends that by enacting the ACCA, Congress meant to target career criminals who use dangerous weapons to commit crimes, as well as repeat offenders whose crimes form the basis of their livelihood. By contrast, Quarles explains, the ACCA was not meant to target individuals who simply commit “unplanned crimes of opportunity” during ordinary trespasses. On a related note, Quarles posits that his interpretation of the intent element would help ensure that the ACCA ensnares the most dangerous criminals—the likelihood of a violent confrontation increases if an intruder enters a building with an intent to commit a crime, because the intruder is likely “prepared to use violence if necessary to carry out his plans or to escape.” On the other hand, Quarles maintains, adopting the United States’ interpretation of the intent element could result in applying a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence to individuals whose criminal conduct falls far short of that of the weapon-wielding “career offenders” that Congress sought to reach with the ACCA.

The United States responds that Quarles’s interpretation of generic burglary under the ACCA draws an immaterial distinction among crimes of burglary based on the point of time that an intruder formed the intent to commit a crime. The United States contends that Quarles’s interpretation would inhibit the ACCA’s ability to reach intruders that are prone to create the risk of violent confrontation that Congress intended the ACCA to target. Moreover, the United States continues, the dangers that Congress sought to address with the ACCA do not turn upon when, exactly, a defendant forms the intent to commit a crime. Indeed, the United States argues, an intruder only needs to be “(1) unlawfully present inside a structure and (2) ha[ve] the requisite intent to commit a crime” to implicate the congressional purpose behind the ACCA. The United States asserts that distinguishing crimes based on the timing of intent formation, as Quarles attempts to do, would lead to arbitrary results that are ultimately unrelated to Congress’s intention in passing the ACCA. The United States also rejects Quarles’s contention that crimes of opportunity are less dangerous than premeditated crimes.



The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), writing in support of Quarles, argues that an expansive interpretation of the intent element of “burglary” would lead to unjustifiably harsh sentences. Relatedly, Quarles contends that the ACCA’s mandatory 15-year minimum sentence should be reserved for the small number of dangerous individuals who consistently commit serious crimes and who pose a significant risk of “us[ing] [a] gun deliberately to harm a victim.” Quarles maintains that “burglary” is a serious crime because of the substantial risk of harm to a victim posed by an individual who enters a building with the intent to commit a crime at the time of entering. The NACDL, agreeing with Quarles, distinguishes this type of danger from the danger posed by trespassing individuals who merely commit “crimes of opportunity.” For example, the NACDL, along with the Federal Public Defenders for the Northern, Western, and Southern Districts of Texas (collectively “Federal Public Defenders”), argue that a lost hiker who breaks into a home to escape the cold and subsequently steals “trinkets,” or a shelter-seeking homeless trespasser who incidentally steals food, are not the type of lifelong criminals who deserve to be punished with a 15-year minimum sentence. According to the NACDL and the Federal Public Defenders, eliminating the requirement of an individual’s intent to commit a crime at the time he or she first unlawfully enters a building would improperly elevate these types of “low-risk” property crimes to the ACCA’s realm.

Respondent United States counters that reading arcane, complex distinctions into the definition of “burglary” will increase litigation costs and expose society to the very dangers that the ACCA is meant to protect against. The United States claims that burglary is inherently dangerous and involves a substantial risk of violent confrontation. According to the United States, this danger exists whether an individual intends to commit a crime at the moment the individual enters the building, or whether he or she forms that intention moments after entering. For example, the United States explains, a homeowner who encounters an intruder is harmed regardless of when the intruder formed his or her criminal intent, because the risk of violence, the danger of confrontation, and the homeowner’s terror are the same whether the intruder decided to commit a crime at entry or moments later. Additionally, the United States claims that burglary is uniquely damaging because it violates an individual’s privacy and poses a risk of loss of the individual’s “most personal and valued possessions.” By minutely parsing the definition of burglary, the United States argues, courts will fail to protect society from these serious harms, which form the basis of the ACCA’s 15-year minimum sentence. The United States acknowledges that there may be instances in which burglary does not lead to violent confrontation, but the United States claims that, notwithstanding these outlier cases, burglary is a “generally violent” crime. Finally, the United States cautions that “overly corrugated definitions” of ACCA’s predicate offenses will needlessly increase litigation costs. .. Miring courts in complex examinations of definitional nuances, as the United States charges Quarles seeks to do, will undermine determinacy and cause confusion in the courts. On the other hand, the United States concludes, applying a plain-English, straightforward definition of “remaining in” will preempt future court battles over divergences between “burglary” under the ACCA, and “burglary” under a state law statute.

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