Supreme Court to Measure Sweep of State Burglary Laws

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court took up two cases Monday that question whether burglaries qualify as violent felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

In the first case, out of Arkansas, Jason Daniel Sims appealed his ACCA sentencing enhancement after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Though Sims had two prior convictions for residential burglaries, he argued that the Arkansas residential burglary offense is categorically broader than generic burglary.

The Eight Circuit agreed last year and vacated Sims’ sentence, prompting another appeal, this time by the U.S. government.  Per its custom the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue any comment in taking up the case or the other case for which it granted a writ of certiorari this morning.

As in Sims, the second case involves consideration of whether aggravated burglary constitutes a violent felony under the ACCA.

The second case hails from Tennessee where Victor Stitt was arrested after a heated argument with his girlfriend in which he tried to shove a loaded handgun in the woman’s mouth while threatening to kill her.

Still was convicted by a jury of possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, and the court designated him an armed career criminal in light of his nine prior “violent felony convictions,” including six for aggravated burglary.

Though the Sixth Circuit had held in the 2007 case U.S. v. Nance that a conviction under Tennessee’s aggravated-burglary statute triggers an ACCA sentencing enhancement, the court reached the opposite conclusion in 2011 when deciding the case U.S. v. Coleman.

The second case involved a similarly worded burglary statute out of Ohio, and the Sixth Circuit opted to rehear Stitt’s case en banc to resolve the conflict.

Overruling Nance in June 2017, the court held that “a conviction for Tennessee aggravated burglary is not a violent felony for purposes of the ACCA.”

Docket records indicate that U.S. Solicitor General will argue both cases for the government. Sims is represented by Arkansas-based federal defender Chris Tarver, and Stitt by Ohio-based federal defender Timothy Ivey.

Under the ACCA, anyone convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm who has three or more prior convictions for serious drug offenses or violent felonies faces a 15-year mandatory-minimum sentence.

Sims was sentenced originally to 210 months, and Stitt got 290 months.

In arguing that the Arkansas statute concerning residential burglary sweeps more broadly than the generic, Sims noted that the “building or structure” element of the generic statute does not encompass vehicles, while it does under the Arkansas law.

But the Eighth Circuit found it “inconsequential that Arkansas’s statute confines residential burglary to vehicles ‘in which any person lives’ or ‘that [are] customarily used for overnight accommodation.’”

Both Sims and Stitt’s sentences were overturned in light of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Descamps v. U.S., which involved the categorical approach of the ACCA.

“Tennessee’s aggravated-burglary statute follows the pattern of Alabama’s third-degree burglary statute to a tee,” the lead opinion said. “It defines ‘habitation’ as ‘any structure … which is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons.’ Tennessee’s definition of habitation ‘includes … mobile homes, trailers, and tents’; it also ‘includes a self-propelled vehicle that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons.’ This nonexhaustive list of ‘illustrative examples’ therefore sets forth means rather than elements. Additionally, our review of the case law reveals no decision suggesting otherwise. As such, Tennessee’s aggravated-burglary statute is indivisible, thereby foreclosing application of the modified categorical approach.” (Emphasis added in ruling.)

Apart from the two cert grants, the Supreme Court did not issue any opinions Monday.

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