December 10, 2018

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Stitt

On December 10, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States decided United States v. Stitt, No. 17-765, holding that the federal statutory term “burglary,” as used in the Armed Career Criminal Act, includes burglary convictions under state statutes that criminalize “burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation.”

Defendants Stitt and Sims are federal firearm offenders, and each had prior convictions for burglary under state law. Federal firearm offenders are subject to the Armed Career Criminal Act’s 15-year minimum sentence if the offender also has three prior convictions for specified crimes, one of which is “burglary.” Burglary convictions, however, do not qualify as predicate offenses under the Act where the elements of the state crime of conviction “are broader than those of generic burglary.” The elements of “generic burglary” are “‘an unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime.’” (quoting Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 598 (1990)).

The state burglary statutes under which Stitt and Sims were convicted cover structures that are “designed or adapted” or “customarily used for overnight accommodation.” Stitt and Sims argued that these statutes criminalize burglarizing structures that generic burglary does not, which makes the state statute impermissibly broader for purposes of the Act. The district courts in both cases disagreed. They held that the state burglary convictions fell within the scope of generic burglary and imposed the Armed Career Criminal Act’s mandatory minimum sentence. The Sixth Circuit and Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals both held that the statutory crimes defined burglary more broadly than the federal generic definition of burglary, vacated the sentences, and remanded for resentencing. The Court granted certiorari to consider whether “burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as ‘burglary’ under the Armed Career Criminal Act.”

The Court explained that “generic burglary” includes “‘at least the “classic” common-law definition,’ namely, breaking and entering a dwelling at night with intent to commit a felony” but also “must include more.” (quoting Taylor, 495 U.S. at 593). Congress “intended a ‘uniform definition of burglary’” that approximated ‘“the generic sense in which the term [was] used in the criminal codes of most States’ at the time the Act was passed.” (quoting Taylor, 495 U.S. at 580, 598). At that time, “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.”

The Court also noted that in providing a sentencing enhancement for prior burglary convictions, Congress was concerned with the crime’s inherent dangers: burglary “‘creates the possibility of a violent confrontation between the offender and an occupant, caretaker, or some other person who comes to investigate.’” (quoting Taylor, 495 U.S. at 588). Persons living in mobile homes, an RV, a camping tent, a vehicle, or another structure that is adapted for or customarily used for lodging do not fall outside the scope of that concern.

The Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Stitt’s case. Sims, raised an argument that the lower courts did not consider. The Court therefore vacated the judgment of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded Sims’s case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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