Mathis v. United States

Citation136 S.Ct. 2243,195 L.Ed.2d 604
Decision Date23 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15–6092.,15–6092.
Parties Richard MATHIS, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mark C. Fleming, Boston, MA, for Petitioner.

Nicole A. Saharsky, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

James Whalen, Federal Public Defender's Office, Des Moines, David M. Lehn, Joshua M. Koppel, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, Mark C. Fleming, Eric F. Fletcher, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Boston, MA, Alan E. Schoenfeld, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, New York, NY, for Petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Nicole A. Saharsky, Assistant to the Solicitor General, John M. Pellettieri, 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), imposes a 15–year mandatory minimum sentence on 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 offenses, courts compare the elements of the crime of conviction with the elements of the "generic" version of the listed offense—i.e., the offense as commonly understood. For more than 25 years, our decisions have held that the prior crime qualifies as an ACCA predicate if, but only if, its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense. The question in this case is whether ACCA makes an exception to that rule when a defendant is convicted under a statute that lists multiple, alternative means of satisfying one (or more) of its elements. We decline to find such an exception.


ACCA prescribes a 15–year mandatory minimum sentence if a defendant is convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm following three prior convictions for a "violent felony." § 924(e)(1). (Absent that sentence enhancement, the felon-in-possession statute sets a 10–year maximum penalty. See § 924(a)(2).) ACCA defines the term "violent felony" to include any felony, whether state or federal, that "is burglary, arson, or extortion." § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). In listing those crimes, we have held, Congress referred only to their usual or (in our terminology) generic versions—not to all variants of the offenses. See Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 598, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 (1990). That means as to burglary—the offense relevant in this case—that Congress meant a crime "contain[ing] the following elements: an unlawful or unprivileged entry into ... a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime." Ibid.

To determine whether a prior conviction is for generic burglary (or other listed crime) courts apply what is known as the categorical approach: They focus solely on whether the elements of the crime of conviction sufficiently match the elements of generic burglary, while ignoring the particular facts of the case. See id., at 600–601, 110 S.Ct. 2143. Distinguishing between elements and facts is therefore central to ACCA's operation. "Elements" are the "constituent parts" of a crime's legal definition—the things the "prosecution must prove to sustain a conviction." Black's Law Dictionary 634 (10th ed. 2014). At a trial, they are what the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt to convict the defendant, see Richardson v. United States, 526 U.S. 813, 817, 119 S.Ct. 1707, 143 L.Ed.2d 985 (1999) ; and at a plea hearing, they are what the defendant necessarily admits when he pleads guilty, see McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 466, 89 S.Ct. 1166, 22 L.Ed.2d 418 (1969). Facts, by contrast, are mere real-world things—extraneous to the crime's legal requirements. (We have sometimes called them "brute facts" when distinguishing them from elements. Richardson, 526 U.S., at 817, 119 S.Ct. 1707.) They are "circumstance[s]" or "event[s]" having no "legal effect [or] consequence": In particular, they need neither be found by a jury nor admitted by a defendant. Black's Law Dictionary 709. And ACCA, as we have always understood it, cares not a whit about them. See, e.g., Taylor, 495 U.S., at 599–602, 110 S.Ct. 2143. A crime counts as "burglary" under the Act if its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense. But if the crime of conviction covers any more conduct than the generic offense, then it is not an ACCA "burglary"—even if the defendant's actual conduct (i.e., the facts of the crime) fits within the generic offense's boundaries.

The comparison of elements that the categorical approach requires is straightforward when a statute sets out a single (or "indivisible") set of elements to define a single crime. The court then lines up that crime's elements alongside those of the generic offense and sees if they match. So, for example, this Court found that a California statute swept more broadly than generic burglary because it criminalized entering a location (even if lawfully) with the intent to steal, and thus encompassed mere shoplifting. See id., at 591, 110 S.Ct. 2143 ; Descamps v. United States, 570 U.S. ––––, –––– – ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 2283–2284, 186 L.Ed.2d 438 (2013). Accordingly, no conviction under that law could count as an ACCA predicate, even if the defendant in fact made an illegal entry and so committed burglary in its generic form. See id., at –––– – ––––, 133 S.Ct., at 2292–2293.

Some statutes, however, have a more complicated (sometimes called "divisible") structure, making the comparison of elements harder. Id., at ––––, 133 S.Ct., at 2283. A single statute may list elements in the alternative, and thereby define multiple crimes. Suppose, for example, that the California law noted above had prohibited "the lawful entry or the unlawful entry" of a premises with intent to steal, so as to create two different offenses, one more serious than the other. If the defendant were convicted of the offense with unlawful entry as an element, then his crime of conviction would match generic burglary and count as an ACCA predicate; but, conversely, the conviction would not qualify if it were for the offense with lawful entry as an element. A sentencing court thus requires a way of figuring out which of the alternative elements listed—lawful entry or unlawful entry—was integral to the defendant's conviction (that is, which was necessarily found or admitted). See id., at ––––, 133 S.Ct., at 2283. To address that need, this Court approved the "modified categorical approach" for use with statutes having multiple alternative elements. See, e.g., Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13, 26, 125 S.Ct. 1254, 161 L.Ed.2d 205 (2005). Under that approach, a sentencing court looks to a limited class of documents (for example, the indictment, jury instructions, or plea agreement and colloquy) to determine what crime, with what elements, a defendant was convicted of. See ibid. ; Taylor, 495 U.S., at 602, 110 S.Ct. 2143. The court can then compare that crime, as the categorical approach commands, with the relevant generic offense.

This case concerns a different kind of alternatively phrased law: not one that lists multiple elements disjunctively, but instead one that enumerates various factual means of committing a single element. See generally Schad v. Arizona, 501 U.S. 624, 636, 111 S.Ct. 2491, 115 L.Ed.2d 555 (1991) (plurality opinion) ("[L]egislatures frequently enumerate alternative means of committing a crime without intending to define separate elements or separate crimes"). To use a hypothetical adapted from two of our prior decisions, suppose a statute requires use of a "deadly weapon" as an element of a crime and further provides that the use of a "knife, gun, bat, or similar weapon" would all qualify. See Descamps, 570 U.S., at ––––, 133 S.Ct., at 2289 ; Richardson, 526 U.S., at 817, 119 S.Ct. 1707. Because that kind of list merely specifies diverse means of satisfying a single element of a single crime—or otherwise said, spells out various factual ways of committing some component of the offense—a jury need not find (or a defendant admit) any particular item: A jury could convict even if some jurors "conclude[d] that the defendant used a knife" while others "conclude[d] he used a gun," so long as all agreed that the defendant used a "deadly weapon." Ibid. ; see Descamps, 570 U.S., at ––––, 133 S.Ct., at 2288 (describing means, for this reason, as "legally extraneous circumstances"). And similarly, to bring the discussion back to burglary, a statute might—indeed, as soon discussed, Iowa's burglary law does—itemize the various places that crime could occur as disjunctive factual scenarios rather than separate elements, so that a jury need not make any specific findings (or a defendant admissions) on that score.

The issue before us is whether ACCA treats this kind of statute as it does all others, imposing a sentence enhancement only if the state crime's elements correspond to those of a generic offense—or instead whether the Act makes an exception for such a law, so that a sentence can be enhanced when one of the statute's specified means creates a match with the generic offense, even though the broader element would not.


Petitioner Richard Mathis pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. See § 922(g). At sentencing, the Government asked the District Court to impose ACCA's 15–year minimum penalty based on Mathis's five prior convictions for burglary under Iowa law.

Iowa's burglary statute, all parties agree, covers more conduct than generic burglary does. See Brief for Petitioner 36; Brief for United States 44. The generic offense requires unlawful entry into a "building or other structure." Taylor, 495 U.S., at 598, 110 S.Ct. 2143 ; supra, at 2248. Iowa's statute, by contrast, reaches a broader range of places: "any building, structure, [or] land,...

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