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Divided Supreme Court Holds ACCA’s Element Clause Includes Robbery That Requires The Defendant To Overcome Victim’s Resistance

In a 5-4 decision by Justice Thomas in Stokeling v. United States, no. 17-5554 (Jan. 15, 2019)(link is external), the Supreme Court held that "a robbery offense that has an element the use of force sufficient to overcome a victim's resistance necessitates the use of 'physical force' within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. SS 924(e)(2)(B)(i)."  Justice Thomas was joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.

This case is important to certain federal defendants who are convicted of possessing a firearm or ammunition after having been convicted of a felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. SS 922(g), and who have three previous convictions for a "violent felony" or "serious drug offense."  Such defendants are subject to a 15 year minimum mandatory sentence.  ACCA defines "violent felony" as "any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" that is an enumerated felony under the statute (e.g., burglary, arson, extortion) or as relevant to Mr. Stokeling's case, "(i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another." SS 924(e)(2)(B)(i) (emphasis added). 

Mr. Stokeling was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced under ACCA, after he objected that his 1997 Florida robbery conviction did not qualify as a "violent felony" under ACCA's element's clause because Florida robbery does not have "as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force."   Florida defines robbery as "the taking of money or other property ... from the person or custrody of another, ... when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear." Further, the Florida Supreme Court has held that the "use of force" necessary to commit robbery requires "resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender." 

"Construing the language of the elements clause in light of the history of ACCA and our opinion in Johnson v. United States, 559 U. S. 133 (2010)," the Supreme Court "conclude[d] that the elements clause encompasses robbery offenses that require the criminal to overcome the victim's resistance."

Briefing on the merits in Stokeling is available at the Supreme Court's website here.