Tuesday, December 18, 2018
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United States v. Stitt / United States v. Sims (17-765/17-766)


Source: Circus Circus

United States v. Stitt and United States v. Sims are cases to be argued in the October 2018 sitting of the Supreme Court. Both these cases deal with the enhancement provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), specifically the inclusion of burglary as a ‘violent offense’. The statute says:

In the case of a person who violates section 922(g) of this title and has three previous convictions by any court […] for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both, committed on occasions different from one another, such person shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not less than fifteen years. […] the term “violent felony” means any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year […] that […] is burglary, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)

The question brought before the Court is, “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 of 1984.”

The case that serves as precedent is Taylor v. United States (1990). When the ACCA was first established in 1984, Congress included a definition of ‘burglary’ in the relevant statute. However, when the act was amended in 1986, Congress omitted the definition. The Court was asked to provide a definition for the clause ‘is burglary’, which is the same definition used in the context of ACCA enhancement clause proceedings. The Court in Taylor rejected use of individual state definitions due to their disjointed nature, which would produce different results in different states even for the same conduct. Similarly, it rejected the common law definition of burglary, citing its arcane, inapplicable nature. However, it formulated a contemporary definition based on previous sources. This definition included two primary components:

We conclude that a person has been convicted of burglary for purposes of a 924(e) enhancement if he is convicted of any crime, regardless of its exact definition or label, having the basic elements of unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime. Taylor v. United States (1990) (emphasis added)

The Court has made it explicitly clear in Taylor v. United States (1990) that automobiles are categorically excluded from the definition of burglary, “A few States’ burglary statutes, however, as has been noted above, define burglary more broadly, e. g., by eliminating the requirement that the entry be unlawful, or by including places, such as automobiles and vending machines, other than buildings.” The suggestion that because of the limited number of states that adopt such statutes, automobiles still may count in the definition of ‘generic burglary’ is improper – regardless of the number of states, the Court has deemed them overbroad within the context of 924(e) enhancements. Furthermore, regardless of if a vehicle is used for the purposes of accommodation or not does not change the fact it is an automobile. The Court, by omission, does not seem to intend an exception. By applying stare decisis, the Court should conclude that they should be exempted.

In its brief, the government suggests that a car should be included in the definition of ‘building or structure’. A car does not fit the common law definition of a building or structure. While contemporary statutes sometimes include vehicles as buildings, it is improper to treat classical structures, such as houses or shops, and vehicles in the same domain. In looking towards an analogous situation, the Court has never recognized similar Fourth Amendment protections for houses and vehicles. Therefore, their categorization in a single group would contradict one area of law with another. This separation also defeats the government’s argument that, even though the Taylor court inferred no congressional intent to reject, the 1984 definition is operable and supports their case, as it required burglary of a building.

The legislative history is inapplicable to overnight accommodation automobiles, and it reveals that the ACCA was created to discourage generic burglary due to the possible harm to occupants inside, as burglars would be prepared to use whatever force necessary. Although homes are not occupied every second of their existence, they are occupied for a sufficiently long time to create a risk of harm to occupants. However, Sims noted in their brief that motor homes were occupied a meagre nineteen days in the year. This implies negated risk and does not fulfill the original legislative purpose.

The Court should affirm the decision of the lower courts, finding in favor of Stitt and Sims, and remand for resentencing.

Sources

Taylor v. United States (1990)

Brief of Respondent Stitt, at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-765/59388/20180814133144856_Brief.pdf

Brief of Respondent Sims, at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-765/59469/20180814163051174_1%20-%20Sims%20-%20Brief%20for%20Respondent.pdf

Brief of Petitioner United States, at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-765/51424/20180626164915138_17-765tsUnitedStates.pdf

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