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The United States Law Week

Government Wins at High Court on Intent in Three-Strike Gun Law (1)

June 10, 2019, 2:09 PMUpdated: June 10, 2019, 4:03 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, sided with the government June 10 in a case about intent requirements in an oft-litigated sentencing law that imposes strict mandatory minimums on gun offenders.

It’s the high court’s latest in a long-running series of cases interpreting the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes minimum 15-year prison terms for gun offenders with three prior “violent felony” convictions. Litigation comes into play when determining what violent felony means.

It’s the justices’ third ruling on the law this term and the government’s third win.

To be sure, the ruling is on an “exceedingly narrow” issue concerning “remaining-in burglary,” Kavanaugh wrote for the court.

Nonetheless, according to the government’s position it previously argued, the decision avoids a situation that could have led to “tossing out an enormous number of burglary prosecutions” had the justices ruled for the defendant, Jamar Quarles.

Quarles pleaded guilty to gun possession in 2015. His prior convictions included two assaults which qualify as violent felonies. But he also had one—which would be his third under the three-strikes law—that he contested on that point. It’s a conviction from Michigan for third-degree home invasion, which doesn’t require that the intent to commit the crime be formed when the defendant enters the location.

The issue was whether that lack of an intent-at-entry requirement complies with the definition of burglary from a prior high court case, Taylor v. United States, such that it can qualify as a prior violent conviction under the act.

It doesn’t, Quarles argued, saying nothing in Taylor or the sources that existed at the time of the career criminal law’s enactment suggested it does.

But Quarles’ interpretation “makes little sense,” Kavanaugh wrote in announcing the court’s holding: “that remaining-in burglary occurs when the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a building or structure,” italicizing “at any time.”

“The possibility of a violent confrontation does not depend on the exact moment when the burglar forms the intent to commit a crime while unlawfully present in a building or structure,” Kavanuagh wrote. “The dangers of remaining-in burglary,” he wrote, “are not tied to the esoteric question of precisely when the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a short concurrence. He agreed with the decision but called into question the way the court has approached Armed Career Criminal Act cases.

The case is Quarles v. United States, U.S., 17-778, affirmed 6/10/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com