Descamps v. United States

Decision Date20 June 2013
Docket NumberNo. 11–9540.,11–9540.
Citation133 S.Ct. 2276,570 U.S. 254,186 L.Ed.2d 438
Parties Matthew Robert DESCAMPS, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Dan B. Johnson, Spokane, WA, for Petitioner.

Benjamin J. Horwich, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Matthew Campbell, Assistant Federal Defender, Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, Spokane, WA, Dan B. Johnson, Counsel of Record, Spokane, WA, for Petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Lanny A. Breuer, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Benjamin J. Horwich, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Daniel S. Goodman, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice KAGAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA or Act), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), increases the sentences of certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions "for a violent felony," including "burglary, arson, or extortion." To determine whether a past conviction is for one of those crimes, courts use what has become known as the "categorical approach": They compare the elements of the statute forming the basis of the defendant's conviction with the elements of the "generic" crime—i.e., the offense as commonly understood. The prior conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate only if the statute's elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense.

We have previously approved a variant of this method—labeled (not very inventively) 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 the 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.

This case presents the question whether sentencing courts may also consult those additional documents when a defendant was convicted under an "indivisible" statutei.e., one not containing alternative elements—that criminalizes a broader swath of conduct than the relevant generic offense. That would enable a court to decide, based on information about a case's underlying facts, that the defendant's prior conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate even though the elements of the crime fail to satisfy our categorical test. Because that result would contravene our prior decisions and the principles underlying them, we hold that sentencing courts may not apply the modified categorical approach when the crime of which the defendant was convicted has a single, indivisible set of elements.


Petitioner Michael Descamps was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). That unadorned offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The Government, however, sought an enhanced sentence under ACCA, based on Descamps' prior state convictions for burglary, robbery, and felony harassment.

ACCA prescribes a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for a person who violates § 922(g) and "has three previous convictions ... for a violent felony or a serious drug offense." § 924(e)(1). The Act defines a "violent felony" to mean any felony, whether state or federal, that "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another," or that "is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." § 924(e)(2)(B).

Descamps argued that his prior burglary conviction could not count as an ACCA predicate offense under our categorical approach. He had pleaded guilty to violating California Penal Code Ann. § 459 (West 2010), which provides that a "person who enters" certain locations "with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary." That statute does not require the entry to have been unlawful in the way most burglary laws do. Whereas burglary statutes generally demand breaking and entering or similar conduct, California's does not: It covers, for example, a shoplifter who enters a store, like any customer, during normal business hours. See People v. Barry, 94 Cal. 481, 483–484, 29 P. 1026, 1026–1027 (1892). In sweeping so widely, the state law goes beyond the normal, "generic" definition of burglary. According to Descamps, that asymmetry of offense elements precluded his conviction under § 459 from serving as an ACCA predicate, whether or not his own burglary involved an unlawful entry that could have satisfied the requirements of the generic crime.

The District Court disagreed. According to the court, our modified categorical approach permitted it to examine certain documents, including the record of the plea colloquy, to discover whether Descamps had "admitted the elements of a generic burglary" when entering his plea. App. 50a. And that transcript, the court ruled, showed that Descamps had done so. At the plea hearing, the prosecutor proffered that the crime " ‘ involve[d] the breaking and entering of a grocery store,’ " and Descamps failed to object to that statement. Ibid. The plea proceedings, the District Court thought, thus established that Descamps' prior conviction qualified as a generic burglary (and so as a "violent felony") under ACCA. Applying the requisite penalty enhancement, the court sentenced Descamps to 262 months in prison—more than twice the term he would otherwise have received.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, relying on its recently issued decision in United States v. Aguila–Montes de Oca, 655 F.3d 915 (2011) (en banc) (per curiam ). There, a divided en banc court took much the same view of the modified categorical approach as had the District Court in this case. The en banc court held that when a sentencing court considers a conviction under § 459 —or any other statute that is "categorically broader than the generic offense"—the court may scrutinize certain documents to determine the factual basis of the conviction. See id., at 940. Applying that approach, the Court of Appeals here found that Descamps' plea, as revealed in the colloquy, "rested on facts that satisfy the elements of the generic definition of burglary." 466 Fed.Appx. 563, 565 (2012).

We granted certiorari, 567 U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 90, 183 L.Ed.2d 730 (2012), to resolve a Circuit split on whether the modified categorical approach applies to statutes like § 459 that contain a single, "indivisible" set of elements sweeping more broadly than the corresponding generic offense.1 We hold that it does not, and so reverse.


Our caselaw explaining the categorical approach and its "modified" counterpart all but resolves this case. In those decisions, as shown below, the modified approach serves a limited function: It helps effectuate the categorical analysis when a divisible statute, listing potential offense elements in the alternative, renders opaque which element played a part in the defendant's conviction. So understood, the modified approach cannot convert Descamps' conviction under § 459 into an ACCA predicate, because that state law defines burglary not alternatively, but only more broadly than the generic offense.

We begin with Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 (1990), which established the rule for determining when a defendant's prior conviction counts as one of ACCA's enumerated predicate offenses (e.g., burglary). Taylor adopted a "formal categorical approach": Sentencing courts may "look only to the statutory definitions"i.e., the elements—of a defendant's prior offenses, and not "to the particular facts underlying those convictions." Id., at 600, 110 S.Ct. 2143. If the relevant statute has the same elements as the "generic" ACCA crime, then the prior conviction can serve as an ACCA predicate; so too if the statute defines the crime more narrowly, because anyone convicted under that law is "necessarily ... guilty of all the [generic crime's] elements." Id., at 599, 110 S.Ct. 2143. But if the statute sweeps more broadly than the generic crime, a conviction under that law cannot count as an ACCA predicate, even if the defendant actually committed the offense in its generic form. The key, we emphasized, is elements, not facts. So, for example, we held that a defendant can receive an ACCA enhancement for burglary only if he was convicted of a crime having "the basic elements" of generic burglary—i.e., "unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime." Ibid . And indeed, we indicated that the very statute at issue here, § 459, does not fit that bill because "California defines ‘burglary’ so broadly as to include shoplifting." Id., at 591, 110 S.Ct. 2143.

At the same time, Taylor recognized a "narrow range of cases" in which sentencing courts—applying what we would later dub the "modified categorical approach"— may look beyond the statutory elements to "the charging paper and jury instructions" used in a case. Id., at 602, 110 S.Ct. 2143. To explain when courts should resort to that approach, we hypothesized a statute with alternative elements—more particularly, a burglary statute (otherwise conforming to the generic crime) that prohibits "entry of an automobile as well as a building." Ibid. One of those alternatives (a building) corresponds to an element in...

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