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Richard Mathis v. U.S., USSC No. 15-6092 , cert. granted 1/19/16

Question presented:

Whether a predicate prior conviction under the Armed Career Criminal Act must qualify as such under the elements of the offense simpliciter, without extending the modified categorical approach to separate statutory definitional provisions that merely establish the means by which referenced elements may be satisfied rather than stating alternative elements or versions of the offense.

Lower court decision: U.S. v. Richard Mathis, 786 F.3d 1068 (8th Cir. 2015); Docket; Scotusblog page

The QP above was drafted by the petitioner’s lawyer. Perhaps you’d like a translation.  Richard Mathis was convicted in federal court of being a felon in possession of a firearm and received an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) due to his prior Iowa state court convictions for burglary. ACCA applies when the defendant has three prior convictions for “violent felonies.” The narrow issue in this case is whether Mathis’s state court burglary convictions qualify as a “violent felonies.”  The broader concern is how the 8th Circuit determined that they did.

There are two ways to determine whether ACCA applies to a state court conviction. See Descamps v. U.S., 133 S.Ct. 2276 (2013), and our post on it here. The “categorical approach” requires courts to look at the fact of conviction and the statutory definition of the prior offense. But when the state statute presents the elements of the conviction in the alternative, so that one set of elements would qualify as a “violent felony” but another set would not, the statute is considered “divisible.” In this situation, courts apply the “modified categorical approach,” which allows them to examine documents like charging papers and jury instructions to determine which set of elements the defendant was convicted under.  Here, Mathis claims that the 8th Circuit extended the “modified categorical approach” to statutes that describe alternative “means” of committing a crime rather than alternative “elements” of a crime.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because SCOW just addressed Descamps’s “categorical” and “modified categorical” approaches in State v. Guarnero, 2015 WI 72, and a cert petition is now pending in that case. See our prior post here. Or maybe it’s ACCA that’s ringing a bell. There is another ACCA case pending in SCOTUS. Welch v. U.S. will determine whether or not Johnson v. U.S. (which struck down ACCA’s residual clause) will apply retroactively. See our post on Welch here.


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