Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

US Supreme Court makes it harder to get tougher penalties

The reporter scrum in front of the Supreme Court Thursday hoping for rulings on Prop 8. Instead, the court ruled on a California sentencing case.
The reporter scrum in front of the Supreme Court Thursday hoping for rulings on Prop 8. Instead, the court ruled on a California sentencing case.
Kitty Felde/ KPCC

California's burglary law came under attack at the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday morning. Justices ruled the state's broad definition of the offense makes it more difficult to use as an enhanced punishment in sentencing. 

The case revolved around Matthew Descamps, who in 2005 was arrested on felony gun charges in Washington state and ultimately convicted. Prosecutors invoked the Armed Career Criminal Act, which increases penalties when there are three prior convictions for a "violent" felony, including burglary. Descamp had pleaded guilty to burglary in California in 1978. But the state's legal description of the crime is broad and even includes shoplifting.

Prosecutors at the time wanted to find out exactly what Descamp had done and searched around in old records to see whether the burglary met the federal standard. In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such action was unacceptable.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said there are limited circumstances when you can dig around for the specifics, but this case "flunks." 

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissenting opinion, saying since Descamps unlawfully entered a building with the intent to commit a crime, that qualifies as a conviction for burglary.

Court watchers suggest the decision means it will be more difficult for prosecutors to use prior convictions to increase federal sentences. Democratic  Congressman Adam Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, said the ruling will directly affect cases in California where burglary convictions are used to increase time behind bars.

"This is an easier, brighter line for the Court to set than encouraging judges in every case to look behind the facts and determine what happened," Schiff said. "It may not be good policy from the public’s point of view, but it may be more administerable from the court’s point of view."

In reading the majority decision, Justice Kagan said the federal sentencing law is “not very well written” and takes up more of the High Court's time "than we'd like." Schiff said that's “fair criticism,” saying it would “probably improve the administration of justice if Congress spoke more clearly on this subject.”

The decision, Descamps v. United States, was one of three announced Thursday by the Supreme Court. There are a handful of days left in the court's calendar, with an affirmative action case as well as two gay marriage decisions yet to be addressed.

Before launching into her decision on Descamps, Justice Kagan told a packed courtroom the Armed Career Criminal Act was "possibly not what you're here for this morning." The comment got a big laugh from  court watchers who were hoping to witness decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.