Descamps V. United States

The Supreme Court has overturned a Ninth Circuit Court ruling regarding the imposition of the Armed Criminal Career Act (“ACCA”) on a defendant with prior “violent felonies”. In its decision, the lower court had deemed it appropriate for the sentencing judge to go back to the guilty plea proceedings in a previous case; the Supreme Court found held that this fact finding went beyond the scope of access for the sentencing judge and overturned the conviction.

In Descamps v. United States, the plaintiff had been sentenced under the ACCA to 262 months in prison; the sentencing judge reviewed his previous record to determine if his prior convictions qualified as “violent felonies” and in so doing ignored the ACCA’s focus on prior convictions rather than underlying conduct. Justice Elena Kagan explained in her opinion that one of the virtues of the ACCA “categorical approach” is that it avoids the practical difficulties – and possible unfairness – of requiring a judge to make findings that more properly belong to a jury.

Only Justice Alito dissented in the 8-to-1 decision, and the Supreme Court criticized the Ninth Circuit for not only ignoring precedents but subverting them, and contended that by allowing judicial fact finding raises precisely the kind of Sixth Amendment issues that the “categorical approach had been created to avoid. Justice Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion that Congress might want to consider making changes to the ACCA that allow sentencing judges to “pursue its policy in a proper and efficient way without mandating uniformity among the States with respect to their criminal statutes for scores of serious offenses.”

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