A Review of Descamps v. United States – Supreme Court Rules on New Criminal Law

Armed Career Criminal Act Implications

A recently passed piece of legislation, the The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) has heightened the punishments of persons convicted under federal laws where they have 3 prior convictions involving violence, theft, arson or extortion. The law originates from Title 18 of the United States Code under subsection 924. The defendant in question in this case had been found guilty of having possession of a firearm and the prosecutor sought to have the sentence upgraded pursuant to the terms of the ACCA. He had also been found guilty of burglary on a prior occasion. Usually, the approach in the past to these types of cases from the courts has been one of ‘categorical’ classification of the offences which can precede the upgrading of the sentence.

The outcome of the case was quite complex in its application of the legislation and spurned a broad array of opinions from the bench on the matter. Essentially, it was found that the categorical approach did not apply in relation to pieces of legislation such as s459 that require a single indivisible set of elements. The cases that the court relied upon in relation to this finding were Taylor v United States 495 US 575, Shepard v United States 544 US 13 and a series of other cases which had contributed to the development of this doctrine. The categorical approach was held to be valid in a limited set of circumstances. The court also contemplated the possibility that extraneous legislative documents may need to be used in construing the applicable statutes correctly.

Essentially, the court also departed from the jurisprudence proposed in the case of Aguila Montes which the court viewed as having altered the nature of the questions about the defendant and their conduct from being an evidence based approach when it should in fact be a question of statutory interpretation. The majority judgement went on further to say that the previsous decision of Aguila Montes has no roots in the prior determinations of the court and further that it undermined the benefits of the categorical approach. It was highlighted that questions of fact should be left in the hands of juries and that, therefore, the factual approach can necessarily result in unjust outcomes. Furthermore, the additional reason for the ruling against the Aguila case was that it was inconsistent with the intention of the congress that passed the legislation.

It remains to be seen what the reaction of the criminal bar will be to this decision and the associated outcomes for criminal defendants subject to this legislation as well as the impact on victims of the crimes of career criminals. It is anticipated that it may result in more lenient sentences, although not in all cases.

By David Coleman

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