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Supreme Court: For ACCA, burglary includes theft from vehicles

For the purposes of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), burglary is considered a violent felony. When someone has two or more violent felony convictions, whether state or federal crimes, they may encounter the ACCA if they are then convicted federally of unlawful firearms possession. Such a conviction carries a mandatory 15-year prison sentence.

Interestingly, the ACCA doesn't provide a definition for burglary. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is a generic definition of burglary which courts should use when determining whether a particular conviction qualifies as a "strike" under the ACCA. When state statutes vary from the generic definition assumed by the ACCA, those varying elements should not be considered.

The generic definition of burglary from the 1990 case is "an unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime." This is, more or less, the same definition of burglary that we use in Iowa.

Recently, two defendants appealed their ACCA convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that their state statutes were broader than the generic definition. They refer to the burglary statutes in Tennessee and Arkansas, which include criminal activities involving vehicles. Both men were convicted of theft from vehicles that their victims had been using as residences.

Is an inhabited vehicle 'another structure' under the definition of burglary?

When the ACCA was passed in 1986, the Supreme Court says, most state burglary statutes were written to cover vehicles that were being used for habitation. When the high court ruled in 1990 that the ACCA assumed a generic definition of burglary, it relied on what was then the definition in the majority of states. Even if some states have since revised their definitions of burglary, the ACCA's generic definition of the term still stands. Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled that the phrase "other structure" in the ACCA's generic definition was broad enough to encompass burglaries of mobile homes, RVs, camping tents and vehicles being used for lodging.

The court backed that up by revisiting why burglary is considered a violent crime in the first place: the risk of a violent confrontation with the homeowner. The justices ruled that the risk of confrontation is, if anything, greater when the home involved is a temporary structure.

The court therefore ruled unanimously that a conviction for burglary of a vehicle or temporary structure counts as a "strike" under the ACCA. Justice Kavanaugh did not participate in the ruling.

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