In January, the Supreme Court handed down its first ruling since the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that any crime that requires the criminal to overpower the victim meets the threshold of a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Newly appointed Justice Kavanaugh joined in the majority opinion.
Armed Career Criminal Act
The ACCA is a federal law that was passed in 1984 and essentially, it sets forth a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for criminals who have been convicted of three or more violent felonies. The law was challenged in the case of Denard Stokeling (United States v. Denard Stokeling).
Denard Stokeling was arrested in 2015 in connection with the robbery of a restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida. He pleaded guilty to the possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon. When the lower court judge sentenced Stokeling to less than half the 15-year mandatory minimum, even though he had two previous robbery convictions, the United States appealed the sentence.
The Federal District Court agreed with the United States and remanded the case back to the lower court instructing that Mr. Stokeling be sentenced as an armed career criminal under the ACCA. Mr. Stokeling then appealed that decision to the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. Stokeling’s defense team argued that the two previous robbery convictions on his record did not amount to violent crimes necessary to sentence him under the ACCA. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. In the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court ruled that robbery does, in fact, qualify as violent if it “requires the criminal to overcome the victim’s resistance.” The Court goes on to state that any effort to overpower the victim, even a feeble or weakened victim, qualifies the crime as violent under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, argued that the majority’s interpretation of the ACCA would mean that a crime would need essentially “no violence at all” in order to be considered violent under the Act. Justice Sotomayor even went so far as to pinch Justice Gorsuch in order to illustrate her point that even the smallest of acts can be overpowering and painful.
What many may find surprising is that conservative Chief Justice Roberts joined the dissenting opinion written by Justice Sotomayor. Justices Ginsburg and Kagan were the other two votes for the minority opinion.
While it may seem counterintuitive that in order to qualify as violent under the Armed Career Criminal Act one does not even need to use a weapon in the commission of a robbery, the majority opinion outlined the fact that robbery in and of itself is a violent crime that necessitates the overpowering of the victim.
One other major point to note is that Florida defines robbery as “the taking of money or other property…from the person or custody of another…when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear.” Here, the Supreme Court simply states that “putting in fear” is violent enough to qualify Mr. Stokeling as an armed career criminal.