Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Loss in Stokeling

Yesterday, in Stokeling v. United States, the Supreme Court held that Florida robbery is a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). In doing so, the Court modified Johnson‘s understanding of the degree of “force” necessary for to satisfy the ACCA’s force clause. The excellent summary below is courtesy of Aamra Ahmad, of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project, and Paresh Patel, Appellate Chief for the District of Maryland Federal Defenders:

Today, in Stokeling v. United States (17-5554), the Court revisited the meaning of the term “physical force” as it is used in the elements clause of the ACCA statute. In Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 140 (2010), the Court defined “physical force” as a quantity of “force capable of causing physical pain or injury.” But in Johnson, the Court also used words such as “severe,” “extreme,” “furious,” or “vehement” to define “physical force.” Nonetheless, today, a majority of the Court, in an opinion authored by Thomas (and joined by Breyer, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh), determined that “Johnson [] does not require any particular degree of likelihood or probability that the force used will cause physical pain or injury; only potentiality.” Applying this definition, the Court held that “the elements clause encompasses robbery offenses that require the criminal to overcome the victim’s resistance.” The Court ruled that Florida robbery is one of these offenses because it requires an “amount of force necessary to overcome a victim’s resistance,” even though Florida robbery only requires force “however slight” to overcome that resistance. The majority’s decision hinged on the view that the term “physical force” in the ACCA was meant to “encompass[] the degree of force necessary to commit common-law robbery.” That included the quantity of force necessary to “pull a diamond pin out of a woman’s hair when doing so tore away hair attached to the pin.”Justice Sotomayor (joined by Roberts, Ginsberg, and Kagan) wrote in dissent that today’s ruling “distorts” the “physical force” definition laid out earlier by the Court in Johnson, as it requires “only slight force.” Noting that under Florida law “[i]f the resistance is minimal, the force need only be minimal as well,” the dissenting opinion cites to Florida cases where the “force element … is satisfied by a [thief] who attempts to pull free after the victim catches his arm,” “pulls cash from a victim’s hand by ‘peel[ing] [his] fingers back,’” “grabs a bag from a victim’s shoulder …, so long as the victim instinctively holds on to the bag’s strap for a moment,” and “caus[es] a bill to rip while pulling cash from a victim’s hand.” Furthermore, “as anyone who has ever pulled a bobby pin out of her hair knows, hair can break from even the most minimal force.” The dissenters would not predicate a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on such conduct and find that by so doing the Court leaves in the dark a common-sense understanding of robbery, Congressional intent to impose an enhanced penalty on offenders with prior “violent” felonies, and its prior decision in Johnson.

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