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SCOTUS: ‘Serious Drug Offense’ Under ACCA Is Self-Defining, Match with Equivalent Federal Offense Not Required

The Supreme Court of the United States held on February 26, 2020, that just as the elements clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) statute provides the criteria defining what prior offenses qualify as “violent felonies,” so too do the criteria defining what prior offenses qualify as “serious drug offenses,” and therefore there was no need to match the prior drug offense to an equivalent federal offense for it to suffice.

Eddie Shular pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida to possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. He was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison without parole, the minimum sentence the court could have imposed under the ACCA. But Shular did not come to court with a clean background.

In 2012, Shular pleaded guilty to six counts of sales or intent to sell cocaine in Florida, in violation of Fla. Stat. § 893.13(1)(a). Those six convictions, the district court determined, all qualified Shular for the ACCA penalty, which mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for any defendant having had three prior convictions for “violent felonies” and/or “serious drug offenses.”

Shular appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed his sentence. He argued that his Florida drug priors did not qualify under the ACCA because Florida does not require proof of a mens rea element, i.e., that he knew he possessed an illegal drug, like its federal counterpart requires. He asserted that the federal “generic” offense of sale of cocaine (coincidentally, what he was convicted of in his federal case) required this “knowing” element, so his Florida priors were not a match with the federal offense and did not qualify for the ACCA.

The Eleventh Circuit ruled otherwise, reiterating its holding in United States v. Smith, 775 F.3d 1262, 1267 (11th Cir. 2014), that the ACCA’s definition of a serious drug offense was “self-defining,” and the district courts need not compare the state prior offense to a federal generic offense.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Shular’s petition for a writ of certiorari and agreed with the Eleventh Circuit. There are two “categorical methodologies” the ACCA uses to identify the kind of prior convictions that qualify under the ACCA, the Court said. Under the first method, the ACCA lists an offense, like “burglary,” which requires a comparison of the state offense’s elements to see if they match the elements of generic burglary, as defined by the Supreme Court. The other method is matching the prior offenses elements to the criteria listed in the ACCA, without comparing it to an equivalent federal offense.

Shular’s prior Florida drug offenses under § 893.13 prohibited anyone from “sell[ing], manufactur[ing], deliver[ing], or possess[ing] with intent to sell, manufacture, or deliver a controlled substance.” However, “knowledge of the illicit nature of a controlled substance is not an element” of the offense but only an affirmative defense to the charge, under state law. § 893.101(2).

The ACCA defines a qualifying serious drug offense as “an offense under state law, involving manufacturing, distribution, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance[.]” The Supreme Court ruled that the second method mentioned applied to qualify Shular’s prior Florida drug conviction as a “serious drug offense” under the ACCA, and no comparison to a federal offense was needed.

Like the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Smith, the Supreme Court concluded that the ACCA’s serious drug offense was self-defining. The Court reasoned that because Congress used the word “involving” before the criteria listed to describe a serious drug offense, that criteria then described the “conduct” the prior offense punished, not any generic offense to compare a prior offense against. The Court agreed with the Government that § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii) describing what qualifies as a serious drug offense refers to “conduct” of the state offense.

The Court clarified that it did not mean “conduct” as in what the defendant did that led to the prior conviction to see if it fits under the ACCA. Instead, the Court said it refers to the conduct listed in the state statute that is prohibited, that is, the conduct required to meet the elements of that statute. To be clear, the Court reaffirmed its prior holdings that a sentencing court may not even look at the conduct of a defendant to see if what he actually did meets the ACCA criteria, not only the elements of the prior conviction’s statute. Descamps v. United States, 570 U.S. 254 (2013); Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2243 (2016).

Shular’s argument that Florida’s cocaine distribution statute lacking the mens rea element took it outside the ACCA was necessarily foreclosed by the Court’s ruling. Since there was no need to compare a § 893.13 offense to a federal generic offense, mens rea was not an issue in that context, the Court said. However, whether the ACCA itself requires a mens rea element for qualifying prior convictions was not reached by the Court, because Shular had not properly raised the question in the Supreme Court, thereby forfeiting the issue.

The Court called both Shular’s and the Government’s interpretation of the “serious drug offense” language as a “measure of consistency,” but it said that the Government’s interpretation most satisfied Congress’ intent that the ACCA applies to all defendants who engaged in certain drug offense conduct and not just to those who committed certain generic drug offenses.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling upholding Shular’s ACCA sentence based on his prior Florida drug convictions. See: Shular v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 779 (2020).  

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Shular v. United States



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