The United States Supreme Court has approved a variant of the “categorical approach" that is used to determine whether a defendant's past conviction is for one of the crimes that qualities as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(e)—labeled the “modified categorical approach”—when a prior conviction is for violating a so-called “divisible statute.” That kind of statute sets out one or more elements of an offense in the alternative—for example, stating that burglary involves entry into a building or an automobile. If one alternative (say, a building) matches an element in the generic offense, but the other (say, an automobile) does not, the modified categorical approach permits sentencing courts to consult a limited class of documents, such as indictments and jury instructions, to determine which alternative formed the basis of the defendant’s prior conviction. The court can then do what the categorical approach demands: compare the elements of the crime of conviction (including the alternative element used in the case) with the elements of the generic crime.
Petitioner Descamps was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Government sought an ACCA sentence enhancement, pointing to Descamps' three prior convictions, including one for burglary under. Penal Code Ann. §459, which provides that a “person who enters” certain locations “with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary.” In imposing an enhanced sentence, the District Court rejected Descamps' argument that his §459 conviction cannot serve as an ACCA predicate because §459 goes beyond the “generic” definition of burglary. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that its decision in United States v. Aguila-Montes de Oca, 655 F. 3d 915, permits the application of the modified categorical approach to a prior conviction under a statute that is “categorically broader than the generic offense.” It found that Descamps' §459 conviction, as revealed in the plea colloquy, rested on facts satisfying the elements of generic burglary.
Can sentencing courts also consult those additional documents when a defendant was convicted under an “indivisible” statute—i.e., one not containing alternative elements—that criminalizes a broader swath of conduct than the relevant generic offense?
The Supreme Court found that the district court and the Ninth Circuit erred when they used the modified categorical approach to look behind defendant's conviction in search of record evidence that he actually committed the generic offense of burglary. The modified approach did not authorize a sentencing court to substitute such a facts-based inquiry for an elements-based one, and did not apply to statutes like § 459 that contained a single, indivisible set of elements. The Court also found that the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Aguila-Montes de Oca was not consistent with the Supreme Court's decision in Taylor v. United States and Shepard v. United States.