The Supreme Court on Tuesday bolstered a federal law aimed at enhancing sentences for repeat offenders of serious crimes.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court backed the government and held that robbery under a Florida law qualifies as a crime of “physical force” that can trigger the Armed Career Criminal Act.
The 1984 federal law targets repeat offenders and provides sentence enhancements for individuals who unlawfully possess a firearm and have been convicted of three drug crimes or serious felonies.
The court’s lineup in the opinion was unusual. Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer joined four conservatives on the court in the majority opinion, while conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberals. It was argued on October 9, the first day that Justice Brett Kavanaugh took the bench. In the closely divided case, Kavanaugh sided with the majority.
Denard Stokeling, a Florida man, brought the challenge. His lawyers argued that his unarmed robbery conviction — involving an attempt to snatch a victim’s necklace — in Florida should not have triggered the federal law.
Stokeling had argued that his state crime of robbery was not serious enough to be considered a violent felony for the purposes of triggering federal law.
The justices ruled against him.
“Robbery under Florida law,” Thomas wrote, corresponds to the physical force necessary to overcome a victim’s resistance. It therefore qualifies as a “violent crime” under the federal law, Thomas wrote, adding that 31 states have similar definitions.
Without the federal law, Stokeling’s sentencing range would have been between 70 and 87 months. With it, he faced between 180-188 months.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissent for Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
She said that Florida’s definition of robbery was too broad and includes “garden variety pick-pocketing or shoplifting.”
“The court today does no service to Congress’ purposes,” Sotomayor wrote, “in deeming such crimes to be violent felonies — and thus predicates for a 15-year mandatory-minimum sentence in federal prison.”