Justices rule conviction from 1970s should not have been used by judge
A Colville man imprisoned as an “armed career criminal” earned a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday when eight justices agreed a burglary conviction in the 1970s should not have been used to lengthen his sentence.
Matthew Descamps, 56, has been serving a nearly 22-year sentence for a shooting that occurred in Stevens County in 2005. U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle looked at Descamps’ criminal history and determined, based on a guilty plea in a 1978 California burglary, that Descamps should receive a longer sentence under federal law. Spokane attorney Dan Johnson argued before the Supreme Court in January that Van Sickle erred because California’s burglary statute did not distinguish the crime as violent.
In an overwhelming decision Thursday, all but one of the high court’s justices sided with Johnson.
“I was expecting it, but you never know,” Johnson said Thursday.
In the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said lower courts went too far in examining Descamps’ trial records and allowed too much speculation about the violence of his previous crime in determining his sentence.
“In fact, every element of every statute can be imaginatively transformed as the Ninth Circuit suggests,” Kagan said. “ … Think: Professor Plum, in the ballroom, with the candlestick?; Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with the rope, on a snowy day, to cover up his affair with Mrs. Peacock?”
It is exactly this kind of speculating the high court has said should be done by a jury, not a judge determining sentencing, Kagan wrote.
Thursday’s ruling ends a legal process that has spanned eight years for Descamps and almost a full year for Johnson. Descamps has been in custody since firing a .32-caliber handgun into the side of another vehicle in Stevens County in March 2005. He later admitted firing the weapon to intimidate a man who owed him money for drugs. His sentence was extended from 10 to nearly 22 years for the crime after Van Sickle examined Descamps’ criminal past. The 1978 burglary conviction stemmed from unlawful entry into a Stockton, Calif., convenience store.
Johnson had been checking the Supreme Court website and legal blogs as part of his daily routine for the past month, he said.
At oral arguments on Capitol Hill in January, justices voiced their unease with the Armed Career Criminal Act, the federal law under which Descamps was given a longer sentence, creating a nationwide discrepancy in criminal convictions. This argument held sway with the majority, but Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a lone dissent that the ruling handcuffs judges trying to interpret federal law in sentencing criminals.
“The Court’s holding will … frustrate fundamental” objectives of federal law, Alito wrote.
The decision will also likely have ramifications in deportation hearings. Judges use a similar process to determine if a person’s criminal record is grounds for removal from the country.
Descamps is now eligible for resentencing based on the court’s decision. He’s been serving time at a penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa.
Johnson had hoped to argue before the Supreme Court again this year, but the justices declined to hear his defense in a fraud case involving undocumented workers.
Thursday, his thoughts were on that tense hour standing before the nation’s highest legal order.
“It’s a pretty good win,” Johnson said.
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