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High Court Lowers Force Threshold for Violent Robberies

In the first divided opinion of the term, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday in support of sentencing enhancements for a Miami Beach burglar.

WASHINGTON (CN) - In the first divided opinion of the term, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday in support of sentencing enhancements for a Miami Beach burglar.

Like many cases involving the Armed Career Criminal Act, the case here turns on whether petitioner Denard Stokeling had a record that included three violent felonies before he was convicted of a 2015 burglary.

Having managed to persuade a federal judge that his 1997 robbery conviction did not meet the standard, Stokeling was sentenced at trial to less than half of the 15-year mandatory minimum demanded by the ACCA.

The 11th Circuit was not as easily persuaded, however, and Stokeling's ensuing challenge marked the first case that the Supreme Court heard following the confirmation last fall of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In Tuesday's ruling, Kavanaugh joined the majority in handing defeat to Stokeling, finding that any robbery offense where the criminal overcomes the victim’s resistance qualifies as a violent felony under the ACCA.

The lead opinion, which is signed by Justice Clarence Thomas, says: "The force necessary to overcome a victim’s physical resistance is inherently 'violent.'"

"This is true because robbery that must overpower a victim’s will — even a feeble or weak-willed victim — necessarily involves a physical confrontation and struggle," Thomas added. "The altercation need not cause pain or injury or even be prolonged; it is the physical contest between the criminal and the victim that is itself 'capable of causing physical pain or injury.' ... Robbery thus has always been within the 'category of violent, active crimes' that Congress included in ACCA."

Thomas emphasized that Stokeling's reading would mean that the robbery statutes in anywhere from 31 to 43 states would not qualify as ACCA predicates.

Indeed, "as Stokeling’s counsel admitted at oral argument, 'armed robbery in Florida' would not qualify under ACCA if his view were adopted," the ruling states.

In addition to Kavanaugh, the majority opinion was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorusch.

Thomas called it enough that the force used in the crime merely be capable of causing pain or injury, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in dissent that a tougher standard is demanded by Johnson v. U.S., the court’s watershed ACCA case from 2010.

“Florida law applies the label ‘robbery’ to crimes that are, at most, a half-notch above garden-variety pickpocketing or shoplifting,” Sotomayor wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

Saying that she would have reversed, Sotomayor noted that “Johnson rejected an interpretation of ‘physical force’ that would have included a crime of battery that could be satisfied by ‘the most “nominal contact,” such as a “tap ... on the shoulder without consent.”’”

“As any first-year torts student (or person with a shoulder injury) quickly learns, even a tap on the shoulder is ‘capable of causing physical pain or injury’ in certain cases,” Sotomayor continued. 

Pointing to examples of Florida robbery convictions that included one incident where the robber caused a bill to rip while pulling cash from a victim’s hand, Sotomayor said that the Sunshine State “expands its law beyond the line that Johnson drew” by making robbers out of thieves who use minimal force.T

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