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Supreme Court agrees to hear a long-time felon’s plea

This news story was published on September 1, 2012.
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By Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — A long-ago burglary in Stockton, Calif., set Matthew R. Descamps down a tumultuous road that has now led him, improbably, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, against all odds, the court agreed to hear Descamps’ challenge to a judge’s determination that he’s an armed career criminal. The determination, rooted in his admitted 1978 burglary of a grocery store, dramatically boosted a subsequent prison sentence.

For now, even breaching the courtroom doors is a victory of sorts for the 55-year-old Descamps, a one-time heroin and methamphetamine user currently incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. Few of the roughly 10,000 petitions received annually get a full hearing before the high court. Last term, after carefully picking and choosing, the court issued a mere 75 decisions.

“Because of the small number of cases that are accepted, it’s always surprising,” Descamps’ court-appointed appellate attorney Dan B. Johnson said in a telephone interview Friday, “but I thought that this issue was really ripe.”

The legal question to be heard by the court sometime after October is a technical one, though rich with real-world consequences for inmates and law enforcement alike.

Descamps argues that though he pled guilty to second-degree burglary in the 1978 case, this should not have counted as a violent felony when it later came time for a court to determine whether he was an armed career criminal.

Being labeled an armed career criminal secured Descamps a 262-month sentence following his last conviction, more than twice what he would have otherwise faced.

Here is where it gets complicated.

The federal law allowing stiffer sentences for armed career criminals lists burglary as a qualifying offense, and defines burglary simply as “unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” The California state definition of burglary is much more sweeping and includes elements that wouldn’t necessarily fit under the federal definition; for instance, it covers tents.

Descamps’ last trial judge, nonetheless, looked at the transcript and other documents from the 1978 burglary case to determine that the Stockton conviction fit the federal definition and could count as a prior violent felony. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that judges can take this approach in sentencing in cases like this. Other appellate courts have disagreed.

While acknowledging that “lower courts have taken different approaches,” the Obama administration’s solicitor general argued that it was too soon to take up the issue.

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