Supreme Court agrees to hear case regarding definition of ‘violent felony’

Supreme Court agrees to hear case regarding definition of ‘violent felony’

The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari [order list, PDF] in Stokeling v. United States [docket] on Monday, where it will determine whether a state criminal offense requiring only a slight amount of force is categorically a “violent crime” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) [materials].

The ACCA provides for enhanced sentencing guidelines to be imposed on criminal defendants convicted of certain crimes when they have had at least three prior convictions that are designated “violent felonies” or “serious drug offenses” under the act. In relevant part, “violent felony” is defined as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year … that … has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

In the case at hand, the petitioner was convicted of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, in violation of the law [materials], which would impose harsh sentencing guidelines if the defendant was deemed to be an armed career criminal under the ACCA. At issue is whether Florida’s unarmed robbery statue is categorically a “violent felony” regardless of the amount of force used in the act.

The petitioner was originally sentenced to a little more than six years imprisonment, followed by two years of supervised released, when the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida [official site] held that the unarmed robbery conviction did not constitute a “violent felony” under the ACCA. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website], however, vacated [opinion, PDF] the sentence and remanded it to the district court, holding that the lower court “erroneously looked to the underlying facts” of the offense when it should have applied a categorical approach which “looks only to the elements of the crime.” Using this categorical approach and relying on Florida Supreme Court precedent established in Robinson v. State [opinion], the Eleventh Circuit determined that “[a]n element of Florida robbery is ‘the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear,’ … which requires resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.”

In challenging the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, petitioner argues that the best approach would be that of the Ninth Circuit [official website] as applied in US v. Geozos [opinion, PDF], where the court held that if resistance was minimal then the force used to overcome it is not necessarily violent force. If the ACCA is applied in the case, the conviction would carry with it a mandatory minimum of at least 15 years.