Armed Career Criminal Act (Part 1)

by | Mar 15, 2019 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On January 15, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Stokeling v. U.S. Justice Thomas wrote for the 5-4 majority, joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Sotomayor authored the dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Kagan.

Justice Thomas held in relevant part as follows: Petitioner Stokeling pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm and ammunition after having been convicted of a felony, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1).  Based on Stokeling’s prior criminal history, the probation office recommended the mandatory minimum 15-year prison term that the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides for §922(g) violators who have three previous convictions “for a violent felony,” §924(e). As relevant here, Stokeling objected that his prior Florida robbery conviction was not a “violent felony,” which ACCA defines, in relevant part, as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another,” §924(e)(2)(B)(i). The District Court held that Stokeling’s actions during the robbery did not justify an ACCA sentence enhancement, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed.

ACCA’s elements clause encompasses a robbery offense that requires the defendant to overcome the victim’s resistance. As originally enacted, ACCA prescribed a sentence enhancement for certain individuals with three prior convictions “for robbery or burglary,” 18 U. S. C. App. §1202(a) (1982 ed., Supp. II), and defined robbery as an unlawful taking “by force or violence,” §1202(c)(8)—a clear reference to common-law robbery, which required a level of “force” or “violence” sufficient to overcome the resistance of the victim, however slight. When Congress amended ACCA two years later, it replaced the enumerated crimes with the elements clause, an expanded enumerated offenses clause, and the now-defunct residual clause. The new elements clause extended ACCA to cover any offense that has as an element “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force,” §924(e)(2)(B)(i) (emphasis added).  By replacing robbery with a clause that has “force” as its touchstone, Congress retained the same common-law definition that undergirded the definition of robbery in the original ACCA.

This case highlights the need for defense attorneys to consider the realities of recidivism and future consequences for defendants. At the time the defendant pled guilty to his prior Florida robbery, it is very unlikely that he considered that the plea would one day be a basis for a lengthy prison term after a subsequent conviction.