In its January 15 decision in Stokeling v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that even a state-law robbery counts towards triggering the mandatory 15-year sentence enhancement under the “three strikes” provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). This provision applies to sentencing for a federal firearms crime when the defendant has three previous “violent felony” convictions.
Denard Stokeling had been convicted in Florida for burglarizing the Miami Beach restaurant where he worked, and for the federal firearms charge of being an ex-felon possessing a semi-automatic weapon. Because of his criminal history, Stokeling drew a sentence which included the ACCA three-strikes 15-year mandatory minimum.
On appeal, his public defender argued one of his three earlier felonies under Florida law, a robbery conviction for snatching a necklace, shouldn’t count as a “violent felony,” since it didn’t involve enough physical force to meet ACCA’s definition of a “violent” crime. According to that definition, an element of the crime must be the use, or attempted or threatened use, of physical force against another person.
Stokeling argued that “physical force” should be interpreted to mean reasonably likely to cause injury or pain, which was more than was required to be convicted under Florida’s law on simple robbery.
Rather than evaluating whether Florida’s robbery law included the element of physical force, the federal district court judge first reviewing the case examined the facts of Stokeling’s necklace-snatching robbery, and decided that although he had grabbed the victim by her neck and torn off her necklaces as she held onto them, he did not deserve the enhanced sentence, and instead reduced his sentence to less than half the minimum prison term he would have gotten under ACCA.
Neither the Eleventh Circuit appellate court nor the Supreme Court agreed, however; both held that Stokeling qualified for the enhanced sentence. Writing for a five-member majority, Justice Clarence Thomas held that any force needed for a robber to overcome a victim’s resistance, even if minimal, made it intrinsically violent, so that ACCA’s requirement that physical force would be satisfied by that found in a common-law robbery.
In fact, Thomas noted, using the test urged by Stokeling would be very difficult for courts to apply and result in removing simple robbery, and even some more serious offenses, as an ACCA three-strike felony in over 30 states. He noted that Florida doesn’t specify a higher degree of force for armed robbery than it does the very simplest type of robbery.
In an unusual line-up, the majority decision saw liberal Justice Stephen Breyer join three of the court’s conservatives (Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh), while another conservative, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined three other liberals (Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor) in dissenting.
The dissent was penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who argued it was inconsistent with another Supreme Court decision, the 2010 case Johnson v. United States, which she maintains held that “physical force” in the ACCA stands for a greater level of force than the relatively low level needed to satisfy the common-law offense of battery, which only requires any force of unconsented contact.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.