WASHINGTON (CN) — Upholding a Florida felon’s 15-year stretch after he was caught with a firearm, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that his prior state drug crime qualified him for a sentencing enhancement.
The case is the latest crack the Supreme Court has taken at interpreting the Armed Career Criminal Act, a federal law that requires 15-year minimum sentences for people convicted of gun crimes who also have prior convictions for violent crimes or drug offenses that qualify as “serious.”
The law defines a serious drug offense as a state crime “involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance … for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.”
The case the court decided on Wednesday concerns Eddie Lee Shular. Felons convicted of firearm possession normally face a 10-year maximum sentence, but a federal judge applied the ACCA enhancement against Shular after taking into account his six drug convictions under a Florida law that makes it a crime to “sell, manufacture, or deliver, or possess with intent to sell, manufacture, or deliver, a controlled substance.”
Under Supreme Court precedent, trial courts use the so-called categorical approach to determine whether the ACCA enhancement applies, looking at the elements of the crime instead of what an individual defendant actually did.
Schular told the Supreme Court this approach would save him from the law’s higher sentence because the types of drug crimes described in ACCA require proof of intent, which is not a requirement of the Florida law. The federal government disagreed, arguing courts should look only at the conduct described in ACCA when comparing to the state offense.
The justices were unanimous Wednesday that the government’s argument squared most closely with the text and context of the law.
“The ‘serious drug offense’ definition requires only that the state offense involve the conduct specified in the federal statute,” the lead opinion signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg states. “It does not require that the state offense match certain generic offenses.”
Ginsburg noted ACCA’s definition of “serious drug offenses” does not read as a list of specific crimes, emphasizing in particular that Congress used the word “involving” rather than a more direct term like “is.”
In a short concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh elaborated on the majority’s additional finding that the so-called rule of lenity does not apply. That rule requires courts to interpret ambiguous criminal laws in the way most favorable to the defendant and the majority held the law was not ambiguous.
Richard Summa, a federal public defender who represents Shular, declined to comment on the decision. The Justice Department also did not return a request for comment on the court’s decision.