Whether a state robbery offense that includes “as an element” the common law requirement of overcoming “victim resistance” is categorically a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i), when the offense has been specifically interpreted by state appellate courts to require only slight force to overcome resistance.
Rory Little at SCOTUSblog has more:
Questions arising under the Armed Career Criminal Act have plagued the Supreme Court since the statute was enacted in 1984 and amended in 1986. The statute imposes a 15-year mandatory-minimum imprisonment sentence on federal firearms offenders who have three prior “serious” drug or “violent” felony convictions, even if the prior convictions were under state law. But there is a remarkable variety among the 50 states regarding precisely how state criminal statutes are written, and how exactly those statutes are then interpreted by state courts across the nation. On October 9, the court will spend two hours considering three cases (two are consolidated for the second hour) that reveal, once again, the vagaries of the ACCA. It seems likely that the justices will have all three cases (as well as their prior expressions of unhappiness with the ACCA) in mind during the arguments. So the preview in United States v. Stitt and Sims, as well as this one, should be read for a full picture of the justices’ perspectives.
The first case on the October 9 docket is Stokeling v. United States. The question is what state law crimes of “robbery” should count as prior “violent felonies” under the ACCA. Denard Stokeling was convicted of an unarmed robbery in Florida in 1997; then in 2016 he was convicted federally for being a “felon in possession” of a firearm. If Stokeling’s 1997 prior robbery conviction counts as a “violent felony,” then his federal prison sentence in the current case would increase dramatically, from a 10-year maximum to the ACCA’s 15-year minimum.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in Stokeling’s case that the Florida state robbery crime does categorically meet the ACCA definition. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recently ruled to the contrary (in United States v. Geozos, in 2017), finding that only “minimal” force is required under Florida law. Because Florida robbers apparently travel all across the country, the ACCA is invoked wherever they may subsequently commit a federal firearms crime. Certiorari was granted to resolve the circuit split.
At this point, lawyers may recall differing cases and hypotheticals from their 1L Criminal Law class: Does snatching a purse or chain or cash constitute “robbery”? Cases and definitions on this question of “how much force?” are split across the country. The answer is necessary in most states to distinguish simple theft from robbery, which can elevate a misdemeanor to a felony as well as make the difference between probation and prison time. Moreover, the ruling will apply to any other states that define “robbery” as Florida does. Thus the question presented in Stokeling is nationally important, and will affect the administration of the ACCA in federal courts around the country.
For his part, Stokeling points to a number of Florida state-court robbery cases that he says involved “only a slight degree of force.” He argues that the 11th Circuit’s view ignored not only the words but also the definitional spirit of Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2010 Curtis Johnson opinion, in which the “violent” in the ACCA’s “violent felony” was emphasized. He points out that in a subsequent decision (United States v. Castleman, in 2014), the court cited Johnson for the proposition that “the word ‘violent’ … standing alone ‘connotes a substantial degree of force.’” He argues that he should prevail on “a straightforward application of Curtis Johnson.”