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SCOTUS Clarifies Scope of Generic Burglary Under the ACCA

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of the United States held that state burglary statutes that criminalize the burglary of “vehicles designed or adapted for overnight use” are within the scope of the generic burglary definition under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). 

Victor Stitt and Jason Sims were each convicted in federal court on a charge of unlawfully possessing a firearm. Ordinarily, the maximum sentence for this offense is a 10-year prison term. However, since both had at least three prior qualifying convictions, they were sentenced to the enhanced mandatory minimum 15-year sentence under §922(g)(1) of the ACCA. 

Stitt and Sims each had a state burglary conviction prior to their federal firearms conviction. Burglary is one of the enumerated “violent” offenses in §924(e)(2)(B) of the ACCA that counts toward the three-predicate convictions triggering sentence enhancement. 

Stitt was convicted under a Tennessee burglary statute that defines “habitation” to include (1) “any structure … which is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons” and (2) any “self-propelled vehicle that is designed or adapted for the overnight accommodation of persons and is actually occupied at the time of initial entry by the defendant.” Similarly, Sims was convicted under an Arkansas burglary statute that defines “residential occupiable structure” to include “a vehicle, building, or other structure: (A)
[w]here any person lives; or (B) [w]hich is customarily used for overnight accommodation of persons whether or not a person is actually present.” That is, both were convicted under a state statute that criminalizes the burglary of not only a structure but also a vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used as an overnight accommodation.  

In both cases, the respective U.S. District Court determined that the state statute met the generic definition of burglary for purposes of the ACCA mandatory sentence enhancement. In contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which heard Stitt’s appeal, and the Eighth Circuit, which heard Sims’, held that the state statutes don’t fall within the definition of generic burglary under the ACCA, vacated the sentences, and remanded for resentencing. The Government appealed both cases, which were consolidated. 

The Supreme Court stated that it agreed to hear the consolidated cases “in light of uncertainty about the scope of the term ‘burglary’ in the lower courts” beyond just the particular courts involved in these two cases.   

The question before the Court was “whether the statutory term ‘burglary’ includes burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation.” That is, does generic burglary under the ACCA include “structures other than dwellings?” The Court held “that it does.” 

The Court began its analysis by reiterating that it has held the ACCA “requires us to evaluate a prior state conviction ‘in terms of how the law defines the offense and not in terms of how an individual offender might have committed it on a particular occasion.’” Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137 (2008). Courts must compare the elements of the state statute of conviction with the generic definition of the crime under the ACCA, and where “the elements of [the relevant state statute] are broader than those of” the generic crime, it does not qualify under the ACCA. Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016). This is known as the “categorical approach,” which was first adopted by the Supreme Court in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990). Taylor itself involved a state burglary statute, so it “governs here and determines the outcome,” the Court stated.  

After reviewing the legislative intent behind the burglary statute in the ACCA and the Taylor Court’s discussion on the scope of generic burglary, the Supreme Court instructed that in Taylor it “defined the elements of generic ‘burglary’ as ‘an unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Based on that definition, the Court concluded that the Tennessee and Arkansas burglary statutes at issue fall “within the scope of generic burglary’s definition as set forth in Taylor.” 

The Court explained that at the time the ACCA was passed by Congress in 1986 “a majority of state burglary statutes covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging—either explicitly or by defining ‘building’ or ‘structure’ to include those vehicles.” Consequently, Congress intended such vehicles to be included within the generic definition of burglary for ACCA purposes.

The Court distinguished the current state statutes in question from the Missouri burglary statute at issue in Taylor, which the Court in that case ruled criminalized more conduct than generic burglary. That Missouri statute criminalized breaking and entering of “any boat or vessel, or railroad car.” Unlike the state burglary statutes in this case, the Missouri statute did not restrict the prohibited conduct to only those vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging, and thus, it was beyond the scope of generic burglary.  

After reviewing Taylor and its progeny, the Court acknowledged that it has never decided the question of “whether coverage of vehicles designed or adapted for overnight use takes the statute outside the generic burglary definition.” The Supreme Court announced: “we hold that it does not.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s judgment; it vacated the Eighth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion to address an argument raised by Sims based on an interpretation of state law. See: United States v. Stitt, 202 L. Ed. 2d 364 (2018). 

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