In one of three decisions handed down Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that a 1970s conviction should not have been used to increase the sentence of a man imprisoned as an "armed career criminal."
Eight justices agreed in an opinion that Matthew Descamps, 56, should not have gotten a harsher penalty when he was convicted of possessing a firearm in a 2005 shooting incident. Justice Samuel Alito cast a dissenting vote.
Though he could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison originally, Descamps has been serving a nearly 22-year sentence for the crime, according to the Associated Press. Because he had been convicted of multiple crimes, including a 1978 conviction for burglary in California, he fell under the Armed Career Criminal Act that requires a 15-year minimum sentence.
Although Descamps argued that his burglary conviction was not a violent crime and should not factor into the decision, the federal judge on his case investigated the record himself and decided that it was relevant, AP reported.
California law says a person who enters certain locations "with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony" is guilty of burglary, according to Courthouse News Service, and would include a shoplifter who enters a store during normal business hours.
Because California's broader law goes beyond the "generic" definition of burglary, which requires the entry to be unlawful, Descamps argued that the conviction should not count. But the judge who investigated Descamps' records found that he did not object when his crime was described as the "breaking and entering of a grocery store," according to Courthouse News Service.
Writing for the majority Justice Elena Kagan found that the lower courts went too far by examining Descamps' records and allowed too much speculation about the nature of the 1978 crime, which she said should be done by a jury.
The lower courts "erred in invoking the modified categorical approach to look behind Descamps' conviction in search of record evidence that he actually committed the generic offense," she wrote. Kagan noted in the opinion that the dispute involved a "simple discrepancy" between generic burglary and California's burglary law.
But one justice, Samuel Alito, dissented. Because Descamps entered a guilty plea for the burglary, the conviction should qualify, he wrote.
"When it is clear that a defendant necessarily admitted or the jury necessarily found that the defendant committed the elements of generic burglary, the conviction should qualify," Alito wrote. The court's ruling will "create several serious problems," he added.
Today's ruling will make it more difficult for the federal government to use the details of a prior conviction to strengthen criminal sentences, according to SCOTUSBlog.
Because the Supreme Court reversed the previous ruling, Descamps is now eligible for resentencing.