By Craig M. Coscarelli
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
The Descamps decision gives guidance on the correct application of the Modified Categorical Approach (“MCA”) to determine whether a state prior conviction for burglary really was a burglary under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The Court explained that the MCA could only be applied to a statute if that statute was divisible, or contained alternative language outside the generic definition of the crime. If the statute is not divisible, then it stands as is, but if the definition is not the same as or narrower than the “Generic” definition of the crime, the prior conviction does not count under the ACCA.
Precedent ACCA cases, such as Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990) and Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13 (2005), as well as other ACCA cases over the past quarter-century, show there is obviously a problem with the ACCA. Descamps is yet another effort by the Court to give guidance to the lower courts.
In Taylor, the Court established the methodology to determine whether a prior state conviction for burglary actually was burglary under the ACCA. The Court first defined burglary as: “an unlawful or unprivileged entry or remaining in a structure or building with the intent to commit a crime.” Id. The Court then instituted the “Categorical Approach,” which is to simply look at the language of the state statute of conviction to see if the defendant was convicted of generic burglary. But, since most state statutes for burglary have language in addition to the generic definition to cover a broader range of crimes, the Court authorized a modified version of the Categorical Approach and called it the “MCA.” Id. Under this MCA, the sentencing court could look at the conduct for which the defendant was convicted if the state statute contained alternative language outside the definition of generic burglary. And herein lays the problem. Id.