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The Impact of Mathis v. United States


The Impact of Mathis v. United States

In the wake of our disappointment over the Supreme Court’s decision regarding DAPA and the extension of DACA, the Court issued another, much more favorable opinion. In Mathis v. United States, decided on June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court grappled with the categorical approach as it applies to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The categorical approach appears simple enough on its face, but has caused many a headache to judges and attorneys alike. The Supreme Court defined the categorical approach in Taylor v. United States when it held that to determine whether a conviction constitutes a certain crime, courts should ask if the elements of the offense forming the basis for the conviction substantially match the elements of the generic version of the enumerated crime.

Since Taylor, the lower courts have continued to struggle with the categorical approach and its counterpart – the modified categorical approach – and to constantly tweak and re-define them. The categorical approach becomes particularly difficult to apply when a statute defines various crimes by listing multiple, alternative elements.

In Mathis, the Supreme Court was faced with applying the categorical approach to Iowa’s burglary statute. Iowa’s burglary statute requires unlawful entry into “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle.” The statute defines only one crime, with one set of elements, and alternative factual means by which a defendant can satisfy those elements. (Importantly, elements and facts are distinct, and facts have no place in the categorical approach.) The list of places enumerated in the Iowa statute does not set out alternative elements, but rather alternative means of fulfilling one element. Because these are means, rather than elements, the Supreme Court held that the elements of Iowa’s burglary law are broader than those of generic burglary, and therefore, the petitioner’s prior convictions cannot give rise to an ACCA sentence enhancement.

This decision was hugely impactful for us here in Colorado. Judge Kagan’s majority opinion used as an example an assault statute with multiple mental states. Judge Kagan held that a statute that criminalizes “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” assaulting another is analogous to the Iowa burglary statute; it includes various means of accomplishing a single element. The implication of this is that Colorado’s 3rd degree assault statute is categorically not a crime involving moral turpitude. Historically, 3rd degree assault is frequently charged in Colorado and carries severe immigration consequences. Following, Mathis, this should no longer be the case. Mathis came as a welcome decision that will surely prove to have a broad reach.

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