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SCOTUS: Florida’s Robbery Statute Satisfies Physical Force Requirement of Armed Career Criminal Act

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held that the amount of force necessary to sustain a conviction for robbery in Florida satisfies the elements clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i) (“ACCA”).

In July 2015, Miami Beach Police confronted Denard Stokeling about a burglary. They removed from his backpack a 9-mm firearm and 12 rounds of ammunition. Stokeling subsequently pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm and ammunition after having been convicted of a felony in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

The Government sought to have Stokeling sentenced under ACCA, which provides that anyone who violates § 922(g), and also has three previous convictions for violent felonies, shall receive a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. 18 U.S.C § 924(e). “Violent felony” is defined as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that “(i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or (ii) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” § 924(e)(2)(B).

Relying on Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010), Stokeling argued one of his robbery convictions from 1997 was not a violent felony because Florida’s robbery statute does not require sufficient force to satisfy the force required by the elements clause of ACCA. The district court agreed and declined to sentence Stokeling to the mandatory term. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, rejecting Stokeling’s argument. SCOTUS granted certiorari.

SCOTUS determined that Congress, in the original ACCA, was clearly referencing common law robbery. Samantar v. Yousuf, 560 U.S. 305, (2010). (“Congress is understood to legislate against a background of common-law ... principles.”) As originally enacted, ACCA “prescribed a 15-year minimum sentence for any person who received, possessed, or transported a firearm following three prior convictions ‘for robbery or burglary.’” 18 U.S.C. App. § 1202(a) (1982 ed., Supp. II). Robbery was defined as “any felony consisting of the taking of the property of another from the person or presence of another by force or violence.” Id. The definition mirrored the elements of common-law robbery, which required force or violence. Under the common law, the degree of “force” or “violence” needed for robbery was established as: “sufficient force must be used to overcome resistance ... however slight the resistance.”

When Congress amended ACCA in 1986, the enumerated crimes of robbery and burglary were replaced with the elements clause to cover any crime that has “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force.” The Court then observed, “If a word is obviously transplanted from another legal source, whether the common law or other legislation, it brings the old soil with it.” Thus, the Court found that the term “physical force” in the current version of ACCA has the same definition as “force” used in the original statute and carries the same meaning as when defining common-law robbery.

The Court went on to say that its “understanding of physical force is further buttressed by the then widely accepted definitions of robbery in the States. In 1986, a significant majority of the States defined nonaggravated robbery as requiring force that overcomes a victim’s resistance.”

In rejecting Stokeling’s argument, the Court stated that Johnson “held that actual and intentional touching—the level of force necessary to commit common-law misdemeanor battery—did not require the degree of force necessary to qualify as a violent felony under ACCA’s elements clause.” But “Johnson itself relied on a definition of physical force that specifically encompassed robbery.” The Court then said, “It would be anomalous to read ‘force’ as excluding the quintessential ACCA-predicate crime of robbery, despite the amendment’s retention of the term ‘force’ and its stated intent to expand the number of qualifying offenses.”

SCOTUS next examined Florida’s robbery statute to determine whether it satisfies the elements clause of ACCA. Florida law defines robbery as “the taking of money or other property ... from the person or custody of another ... when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear.” Fla. Stat. § 812.13(1). The Court noted that the “Florida Supreme Court has made clear that this statute requires ‘resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.’” Robinson v. State, 692 So.2d 883 (Fla. 1997). The Court then concluded, “Because the term physical force in ACCA encompasses the degree of force necessary to commit common-law robbery, and because Florida robbery requires that same degree of force, Florida robbery qualifies as an ACCA-predicate offense under the elements clause.” 

Accordingly, SCOTUS affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment. See: Stokeling v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 544 (2019). 

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