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Mathis v. United States: Possible SCOTUS Decision on Divisibility and Application of the Modified Categorical Approach

On September 15, 2015, Richard Mathis filed his petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in hopes that the Justices will resolve an issue which currently has the circuit courts split: Whether, under the modified categorical approach as articulated in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), and Decamps v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 227 (2013), a Court may review the defendant’s underlying conduct from a conviction to determine whether a particular federal crime was committed, in this case a predicate offense under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, when the state statute sets out alternative forms of committing an offense, or whether the modified categorical approach requires a state-law inquiry into whether the alternative forms of the offense constitute “means” or “elements.”

In this case, the petitioner entered a guilty plea to “being a felon in possession of a firearm,” in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). He was sentenced as an armed career criminal under 18 U.S.C. 924(e) to 180 months of imprisonment, to be followed by five years of supervised release.

The Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA) increases the statutory maximum sentence, and requires a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence, if a defendant is convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm following “three previous convictions for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.” 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). The relevant portion of the ACCA’s definition of a “violent felony” for this case includes burglary.

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined burglary under the ACCA (“generic burglary”) as a crime “having the basic elements of unlawful, unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 599 (1990). Burglary under the ACCA, however, does not include unlawful entry into other places, “such as automobiles and vending machines.”

In this case, the government argued that the petitioner was subject to the ACCA based on his convictions for interference with official acts causing serious injury and his five burglary offenses in violation of Iowa law, as they allegedly met the federal definition of a “violent felony.” Although the government acknowledged that Iowa’s burglary statute was broader than the ACCA burglary statute because it applies to vehicles as well as buildings, the government argued that the petitioner’s convictions were for ACCA burglary after an application of the modified categorical approach revealed that his burglary convictions involved the unlawful entering of (1) a “house and garage,” (2) a “garage,” (3) a “garage” (4) a “machine shed,” and (5) a “storage shed.”

The government explained that “[i]f an overbroad statute specifies alternative methods of committing the offense, some of which fit the generic definition of burglary and some of which do not, the statute is divisible.” Sent. Mem. 3 (citing Decamps, 133 S. Ct. at 2282). The District Court agreed and found that the Iowa burglary statute was divisible because it includes alternative sets of elements that conform to generic burglary and others that do not and therefore the modified categorical approach applied.

The petitioner argued, however, that the Iowa burglary statute was not divisible because the jurors were not required to come to a unanimous decision about the type of location that was burglarized by the defendant, and thus, the statute set out alternative “means” for committing the offense rather than “elements.” The Court responded by explaining that if the record of conviction establishes the alternative form of the offense which was the basis for the conviction, then no further inquiry was required into the unanimity of the jurors. The Court did acknowledge, however, that this issue has caused a split within the circuits.

The Solicitor General drafted a response to the petition for a writ of certiorari and agreed with petitioner that the petition should be granted in this case so as to resolve the circuit split. If the U.S. Supreme Court does grant the writ of certiorari, we should have a decision by June of 2016. A decision from the Supreme Court on this issue would ensure that similar cases in different circuits are decided with some uniformity. Currently, decisions on this issue may vary based on the particular circuit within which the case arises.

This is divisive issue with diametrically opposed opinions on either side, so the Supreme Court’s decision, if the petition for certiorari is granted, will be anticipated by many.