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Supreme Court sets low threshold for sentencing repeat violent offenders to stiff prison terms

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

A divided Supreme Court on Monday set the bar low on the amount of violence needed to trigger longer prison sentences for some repeat offenders.

Deciphering the provisions of the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 1984 law that sets a 15-year minimum sentence for gun crimes if the defendant has three or more violent felony convictions, often divides the justices. It sometimes jumbles the court’s usual voting patterns, and Tuesday’s decision was a good example.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, one of the court’s consistent liberals, joined his four most conservative colleagues in saying a Florida man with a lengthy criminal past deserved the enhanced sentence.

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But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., another of the court’s conservatives, went the other way. He joined the three remaining liberal justices in dissent, agreeing that the majority opinion turned “glorified pickpockets, shoplifters and purse snatchers” into violent criminals for purposes of the act.

There is no debate about the facts of the case. Denard Stokeling was arrested in connection with a Miami Beach restaurant robbery in 2015, and acknowledged to police he had a firearm and ammunition in his backpack. After he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, prosecutors said he should be sentenced under the ACCA.

Stokeling previously had been convicted of home invasion, kidnapping and robbery. But he said the robbery conviction should not count because Florida’s law did not require sufficient force to constitute a violent felony.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the “use of force” necessary to commit robbery in the state requires “resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.”

The high court often struggles with reconciling a state’s law with the predicates of the ACCA. But Justice Clarence Thomas, who assigned himself the opinion as the senior justice in the majority, said Florida’s law was an adequate fit with the statute and the court’s past decisions.

“Robbery that must overpower a victim’s will — even a feeble or weak-willed victim — necessarily involves a physical confrontation and struggle,” Thomas wrote. “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.’ ”

He was quoting a 2010 court precedent.

Defining force as Stokeling suggests would mean that more than 30 state robbery laws would not qualify as ACCA predicates, Thomas wrote. Besides Breyer, he was joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was voting in the first Supreme Court case he heard upon joining the court in October.

Sotomayor said the majority opinion was at odds with the very 2010 opinion Thomas quoted, which coincidentally held that Florida’s law on battery did not qualify as an ACCA predicate.

She wrote that a pickpocket who attempts to pull free of a victim’s grasp or a thief who snatches a handbag that the victim instinctively holds onto would meet Florida’s definition. Sotomayor even referenced her own recent shoulder separation.

“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.

But she said the court in the 2010 case was trying to denote “a heightened degree of force.”

The case is Stokeling v. United States .