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ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
It’s been rough sailing for “crimes of violence” in the last few years, as courts have repeatedly limited the types of prior offenses that may be considered by federal courts as crimes of violence. This week, another one – a Florida burglary offense – fell.
This may seem rather dry to a lot of people. Who cares whether a past conviction was violent or not? A lot of people, it turns out, because whether a defendant’s prior crimes are crimes of violence or not makes a dramatic difference in sentencing. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, for example, a convicted felon caught during deer season with a shotgun faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for violating 18 USC 922(g). But if his criminal history includes three crimes of violence, the minimum sentence starts at 15 years and maxes out at life. A number of other statutes and Guidelines also mete out additional punishment depending on whether a defendant’s criminal history is violent or not.
But doesn’t that sound like a good idea? Who needs violent criminals stalking our streets? After all, you convicted felons out there, sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime…
Sure, piling on additional punishment for already-punished misdeeds is viscerally appealing, until you get into the fine print of what the law considers a violent crime to be. Right now, it’s defined as any burglary, extortion, arson or crime involving an explosive. Additionally, it’s any other crime that involves force or the threat of force.
Most of that sounds good, but what about the guy who 20 years ago, used to sneak into the neighbors’ chicken coops and steal some eggs? Or boosted some Twinkies from Walmart? Those are burglaries in most states. Those “crimes of violence” hardly make him a likely chainsaw killer on a rampage.
Part of the problem is that the parameters of the law of burglary vary widely from state to state. What’s called a burglary in one state may be called a simple breaking and entering elsewhere. In other words, the “crime of violence” definition was punishing people depending on whether state legislatures decided to use the “b”-word – burglary – in a statute.
In Taylor v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the term “burglary” to “generic” burglary – unlawful entry into a building or other fixed structure. Breaking into a car, boat, or airplane wouldn’t count. Taylor further made the fateful determination that the analysis of whether a prior conviction for “burglary” satisfied the generic definition of burglary was to be performed on a “categorical” basis. That is, the sentencing court was not to look at the actual facts of the case to decide whether the defendant’s conduct constituted generic burglary; rather, the court was to analyze the statute under which he was convicted to determine whether it “categorically” qualified as generic burglary.
The Supreme Court followed that decision in 2013 with Descamps v. United States, which expanded the use of the “categorical” approach. Johnson v. United States followed two years later, in which the Supreme Court eviscerated the statutory definition of “crime of violence” by invalidating the catch-all residual clause, which included in the definition any offense that carried the risk of harm to a victim, regardless of a defendant’s intent.
One of the guys who cares about it is Juan Gabriel Garcia-Martinez. In 2009 Juan, a Mexican citizen in the United States illegally, was convicted in Florida of 2nd-degree burglary of a dwelling under Florida Statute § 810.02(3).
Florida defines burglary as “[e]ntering a dwelling, a structure, or a conveyance with the intent to commit an offense therein…” with the intent to commit an offense or a forcible felony. A 2nd degree burglary is one in which while committing the offense, the offender does not make an assault or battery and is not and does not become armed with a dangerous weapon or explosive. A “dwelling” is “a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether such building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night, together with the curtilage thereof.” § 810.011(2)
After his Florida 2nd degree burglary conviction, Juan got booted from the United States and told never to come back. But he did. However, four years later, Juan was back, and immigration agents caught up with him in a Florida jail after he had been arrested for battery. He later pled guilty to illegal reentry after deportation.
The presentence investigation report assigned a base offense level of 8 under USSG § 2L1.2(a) and a 16-level increase under USSG § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii) for having committed a crime of violence – the 2nd degree burglary – prior to being deported. As a result, Juan faced a sentence of 41 to 51 months imprisonment.
On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit vacated the sentence. It held that the Florida 2nd-degree burglary statute was broader than the generic definition of burglary. The Florida definition of a “dwelling” included not just the building itself, but the curtilage as well. Curtilage is defined in Florida as an enclosure around a residence, such as a law surrounded by a hedgerow or a fenced-in backyard. The Circuit said, “Florida’s inclusion of curtilage in its definition of dwelling makes its burglary of a dwelling offense non-generic. Curtilage… is not categorically used or intended for use as a human habitation, home or residence because it can include the yard and, as the State acknowledges, potentially even outbuildings as long as they are located within the enclosure.”
Because Florida law defined curtilage as part of the dwelling for purposes of burglary, the 11th held the statute was indivisible, and thus – no matter what the facts of Juan’s burglary might have been – it was not a crime of violence.
The effect of the holding will be to cut Juan’s Guidelines range to a maximum of 14 months.
United States v. Garcia-Martinez, Case No. 14-15725 (11th Cir. Jan. 11, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root