Brett Stuff
Judging the Judges

Term Year: 2018


United States v. Victor J. Stitt


United States v. Jason Daniel Sims

Summary Analysis

DATE: 2018-12-10
DOCKET: 17-765
NAME: United States v. Victor J. Stitt

   AUTHOR: Breyer
   JOINING: Roberts, Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh
   GOOD: No

In this instance, The Court has issued a single opinion for two cases. For data entry purposes, I will treat both of them as a single case.

Case Commentary

The case (or cases, if you want to get technical; but as I said, I prefer to think of it as a single case) concerns itself with the Armed Career Criminal Act, which mandates harsher penalties (a minimum 15 year sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm, as I understand it) for certain repeat offenders.

And at issue is whether that law should apply to either of our two defendants.

Now, the very fact that there is a question on the issue (or that The Supreme Court granted certiorari) underlies the wishy-washiness of the underlying statute. It's vague. And so, a sentencing court has to make assumptions.

Here's how it works.
So, One... Two... Three...

Only, One-Two-Three could happen at the same time (all Wham-Bam!) the first time a Bad Guy goes to trial... or so, I believe, based upon my reading of last year's slip.

{And just by-the-by, back-to-back grants of certiorari (for more or less the same thing) underscore the true crappiness of this statute's wording.}

So, the following conviction sequence qualifies for the increased sentencing, as well:
  1. An Instance of Breaking & Entering
  2. An Instance of Breaking & Entering
  3. An Instance of Breaking & Entering

  4. Bad Guy Gets Arrested
  5. Bad Guy Is Convicted
    • Simultaneously on Three Instances of Breaking & Entering

  6. Three Strikes And You're Out!
Personally, the above seems like it should only count as one conviction to me, as I am in favour of rolling all crimes brought to bear at the same trial (or as occur more or less temporarily together, as a Life Style Choice) into a single chargeable offence. Which is to say, the crime of Murder (by definition) includes (at least) the crimes of Attempted Murder and Battery... if not a few more. So if one goes on a Burglary Spree, it's just the one Spree.

However, Temporal Proximity is not what this case is about.

Rather, a Felon is convicted of a Criminal Statute.
Action -> Consequence
Or broken out a bit further:
Action -> Arrest -> Charge -> Trial -> Conviction -> Sentence
And for whatever reason (as in, it made sense to the jurists involved, at the time) that when looking at prior Convictions, only the Conviction part of the above formula is considered. It makes things easier, as one only has to look at the Conviction Record and not the Court Cases, themselves. Or at least, that's the theory. Unfortunately, Congress was fairly vague (using generic definitions as it did) when it wrote the Armed Career Criminal Act, so it is unclear whether a Particular Convict's Burglary Conviction (often a State Offence, so a State Conviction) meets (but does not exceed) the requirements of Generic Burglary, as specified by Congress... and therefore, as defined by the Feds.

Thus (as interpreted by The Court), a State Conviction of Burglary counts under the Armed Career Criminal Act only if the State's Definition of Burglary is significantly equal to the Feds.

For instance (as I read it), if a State's definition of Burglary includes Theft of Crops in the Field or Theft of Cargo from a Vehicle Transport, then that State's Burglary Statute would be too broad and ANY conviction for Burglary in that State (even those which were for House Robbery, which is what Burglary is typically understood to mean) would not count when figuring the number of prior convictions needed to meet the increased sentencing guidelines of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

In all, I do not care about the technicalities involved. It was a poorly written law. And it is the type of thing the Supreme Court should have kicked back to the legislature the first time they saw it. Like I said, I've already read one Supreme Court Opinion concerning this law. And I do not expect this one to be the last.

The problem (in the end) reduces to an Edge Case Classification Problem.

For instance, where does the Platonic Essence of a Table end and the Platonic Essence of a Chair begin?


Trust me!

You really don't want to get into it... or at least, I do not.

Suffice to say, sometimes folks sit on chairs, use chairs as tables, and Art & Architecture Students & Professionals seem to relish in blurring the distinction between the two as a point of honour.

In short, it's not only a question that has no easy answer. It's, also, a question that has no answer, whatsoever.

Ironically, if the Armed Career Criminal Act had been kicked back to the Legislature the first time around, they could have fixed it up right... which in my opinion, would have meant switching the Three Strikes criteria from the Law Broken to the Punishment Rendered (i.e. The Sentence).

Maybe, we could say that if anyone had already served (or been ordered to serve) Ten Years in Prison, then the 15 Year Minimum Sentencing applies!
10+ Years and Booster Applies!

<10 Years and it does not.
It's a system that is painfully easy to implement... and as such, is blessed unlikely to ever be instantiated by Congress.

Of course, my personal solution would be more graduated.
1 Prior Felony Conviction = 1x Sentence

2 Prior Felony Conviction = 2x Sentence

3 Prior Felony Conviction = 3x Sentence
I am not locked into the numbers.

What do I care if the Second Conviction only results in a 10% Increase in Sentence?

Anyway (and in the end), the Supreme Court decision is too technical for me to care about... as is the underlying law.

Throw it out (bathwater, baby, and all) and start over.

Besides, the very fact that this case got to the Supreme Court (a Court which has heard case after case about the Armed Career Criminal Act, at this point, already) is prima facie evidence that there was not fair warning to the defendants (a legal requirement for conviction, as I understand it); and as such, should not be applied.

But then, come one, Career Criminals? It's not like I really care what happens to them.

Judging the Judges

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Originally, I thought I had agreed with The Court's Opinion, but upon review I flipped.

I say, the Armed Career Criminal Act is a badly worded law, so kill it where it stands.

© copyright 2019 Brett Paufler
A Personal Opinion/Editorial