WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- The U.S Supreme Court, in a complicated 8-1 ruling Thursday, made it harder for the federal government to extend sentences for prior crimes.
The Armed Career Criminal Act, or ACCA, increases the sentences for certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions "for a violent felony," including "burglary, arson, or extortion."
The courts use a "categorical approach" to determine whether a past conviction fits into one of those crimes. U.S. judges compare the statutory elements of a prior conviction with the elements of the "generic" crime" -- the offense as commonly understood.
If the statute's elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense, the prior conviction qualifies under ACCA. When a prior conviction is for violating a "divisible statute" -- one that sets out one or more of the elements in the alternative (for example, burglary involving entry into a building or an automobile) -- a "modified categorical approach" is used.
That approach permits sentencing judges to consult a limited class of documents, such as indictments and jury instructions, to determine which alternative element formed the basis of the defendant's prior conviction.
In Washington state, Matthew Descamps was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Federal prosecutors sought an ACCA sentence enhancement, pointing to Descamps' three prior convictions, including one for burglary under a section of the California Penal Code that says a "person who enters" certain locations "with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary."
A federal judge rejected Descamps' argument that his California conviction cannot serve as an ACCA predicate because it goes beyond the "generic" definition of burglary. A federal appeals court agreed.
But the Supreme Court reversed.
In the prevailing opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the appeals court's "approach turns an elements-based inquiry into an evidence-based one, asking not whether 'statutory definitions' necessarily require an adjudicator to find the generic offense, but whether the prosecutor's case realistically led the adjudicator to find certain facts."
The modified categorical approach does not apply to statutes like the California provision "that contain a single, indivisible set of elements," Kagan wrote. She said only "divisible statutes enable a sentencing court to conclude that a jury (or judge at a plea hearing) has convicted the defendant of every element of the generic crime."
All the other justices joined Kagan's opinion, except for Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, who wrote separate opinions to concur with the judgment, and Justice Samuel Alito, who dissented.