United States v. Butler, 020420 FED5, 19-10065

Docket Nº:19-10065
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee v. ASTON CHARLES BUTLER, Defendant-Appellant
Judge Panel:Before KING, COSTA, and HO, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 04, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee


ASTON CHARLES BUTLER, Defendant-Appellant

No. 19-10065

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 4, 2020

Opinion Filed Date-February 5, 2020

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

Before KING, COSTA, and HO, Circuit Judges.


Added to the statute books in 1934 just a few months after Bonnie and Clyde's crime spree came to an end, bank robbery is now one of the classic federal crimes. The first section of the "Bank robbery and incidental crimes" statute covers what most would think of as bank robbery-using force, violence, or intimidation to steal property from a bank. 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). Less well known is that the same section of the statute also makes it a crime to burglarize a bank-that is, to enter a bank with the intent to commit a felony or larceny inside the bank. Id. This appeal requires us to decide whether bank robbery and bank burglary are separate offenses or only different means of committing the same offense.

The question no doubt sounds academic. But the answers to academic questions have serious consequences under the categorial approach that governs much of modern federal sentencing. So it is with this question about the bank robbery statute, which determines whether a defendant should be sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act.


Aston Charles Butler pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Although that crime ordinarily carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison, id. § 924(a)(2), the Armed Career Criminal Act imposes a fifteen-year minimum when the defendant has three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, id. § 924(e)(1). Butler had four convictions for federal bank robbery and two convictions for Texas robbery. The sentencing court concluded that Butler's federal bank robbery convictions constituted violent felonies. That qualified Butler as an armed career criminal, so the court sentenced him to the fifteen-year minimum sentence.


Butler's appeal turns on whether the federal bank robbery statute describes two different offenses or two different means of committing the same offense. Some background on the categorical approach we use to determine if a crime counts as a violent felony is necessary to understand why this distinction matters.

The Armed Career Criminal Act provides multiple definitions for "violent felony." The relevant definition for this appeal is: any crime punishable by more than one year of imprisonment that "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another." Id. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i). That definition is called the "elements clause." Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 1261 (2016).

The analysis a court applies to determine if a conviction satisfies the elements clause depends on whether the offense statute is divisible. United States v. Burris, 920 F.3d 942, 947 (5th Cir. 2019). An indivisible statute lays out "a single . . . set of elements to define a single crime." Mathis v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2243, 2248 (2016). We evaluate indivisible statutes using the categorical approach, assessing whether the elements of the crime include the use of force. Burris, 920 F.3d at 947. Our focus on the elements means that we "ignor[e] the particular facts of the case." Mathis, 136 S.Ct. at 2248. Put differently, we ask: Does the defendant's conviction for this crime mean he must have used, attempted to use, or threatened to use physical force to commit it?

A divisible statute, by contrast, "list[s] elements in the alternative, and thereby define[s] multiple crimes." Id. at 2249. When a statute describes multiple crimes, the modified categorical approach permits courts to "look[] to a limited class of documents (for example, the indictment, jury instructions, or plea agreement and colloquy)" to figure out which of the statute's crimes the defendant was convicted of. Id. Once the court...

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