In a divided ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court seemed to set a low bar for what sort of robbery offenses count as a “violent felony” under federal law.
The case, Stokeling v. United States, involved a career criminal facing a 15-year minimum prison sentence following his latest conviction, this time on a federal gun charge. It split the Court along interesting lines. Justice Stephen Breyer, normally associated with the Court’s liberal wing, voted with Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito in the majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, meanwhile, joined his more liberal colleagues—Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan—in the minority.
The actual facts of the case were not in question. After he was arrested in Florida on suspicion of burglary in 2015, police found a handgun in Denard Stokeling’s backpack. He eventually pleaded guilty and was convicted of illegally possessing the gun and ammunition. Thanks to the Armed Criminal Career Act (ACCA), which sets penalties for people convicted on federal gun charges who have three or more “violent felony” convictions on their record, Stokeling faced a minimum of 15 years behind bars.
Stokeling did not dispute that he had previously been convicted of home invasion, kidnapping, and robbery. But he did say the 1997 robbery conviction, stemming from an incident where he tried to steal necklaces right off a woman’s neck, should not have qualified as a “violent felony.” Rather than a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for his gun conviction, Stokeling said he should be facing no more than 87 months (a little over seven years), according to CNN.
At issue was the definition of a “violent felony” under the ACCA and whether or not it encompasses Florida’s definition of “robbery.” According to the ACCA, a “violent felony” is “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”
Florida law, meanwhile, says that “robbery” is “the taking of money or other property…from the person or custody of another…when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear.” And as Thomas noted in his majority opinion, the Florida Supreme Court “has explained that the ‘use of force’ necessary to commit robbery requires ‘resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.'”
In other words, robbery is not necessarily classified as a “violent felony” under the ACCA. “Physical force,” on the other hand, is. But the question in this case, as SCOTUSblog pointed out in October, did not involve the level of physical force Stokeling used in the necklace incident. Rather, the Court had to determine whether it’s possible, under Florida’s definition of robbery, to commit the crime without using “physical force.” If it is, then convictions under Florida’s robbery law, and possibly other states’ robbery statutes as well, wouldn’t qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA.
Ultimately, the Court said it’s not, with Thomas writing that the ACCA “encompasses robbery offenses that require the criminal to overcome the victim’s resistance.”
“Robbery that must overpower a victim’s will—even a feeble or weak-willed victim—necessarily involves a physical confrontation and struggle,” he wrote for the majority. “The altercation need not cause pain or injury or even be prolonged; it is the physical contest between the criminal and the victim that is itself ‘capable of causing physical pain or injury.'”
Thomas was quoting the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority decision in Johnson v. United States, which also involved the ACCA. The kind of physical force that could conceivably injure a victim, Thomas argued, “includes the amount of force necessary to overcome a victim’s resistance.”
But “Florida robbery…covers too broad a range of conduct to qualify as a ‘violent felony’ under the ACCA,” wrote Sotomayor in her dissent. She particularly took issue with Thomas’s wide interpretation of the word “capable.” In Johnson, “the Court could not have meant ‘capable’ in the ‘potentiality’ sense,” she said. “Rather, it meant it in the sense that its entire text indicates: ‘force capable of causing physical pain or injury’ in the sense that a ‘strong’ or ‘substantial degree of force’ can cause physical pain or injury,” she added, referencing the Johnson decision.
Sotomayor provided a few examples to back up her reasoning. “As any first-year torts student (or person with a shoulder injury) quickly learns, even a tap on the shoulder is ‘capable of causing physical pain or injury’ in certain cases,” she wrote, alluding to her recent shoulder dislocation.
Even minor uses of force fall under Florida’s definition of robbery, she said. But these are not violent felonies. “For example, the force element of Florida robbery is satisfied by a pickpocket who attempts to pull free after the victim catches his arm,” Sotomayor wrote. “A thief who grabs a bag from a victim’s shoulder also commits Florida robbery, so long as the victim instinctively holds on to the bag’s strap for a moment.”
“Florida law applies the label ‘robbery’ to crimes that are, at most, a half-notch above garden-variety pickpocketing or shoplifting” she concluded. And locking up such offenders for 15 years is not all necessary, she suggested.
Sotomayor does bring up some interesting points. In this case, it’s hard to have sympathy for Stokeling, who’s clearly a career criminal (whether he deserves to be put away for 15 years is another question). But it’s certainly possible to envision a scenario where a habitual pickpocketer or shoplifter is eventually convicted on a gun charge and sentenced to prison for longer than he or she deserves.
It remains to be seen what ramifications this ruling will have on future cases. In the meantime, you can read Thomas’s majority opinion and Sotomayor’s dissent here.