U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ

Robbery convictions under Florida statutes qualify as “violent felonies” warranting longer sentences under federal law, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The 5-4 decision in Stokeling v. United States affirmed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which held that Denard Stokeling’s robbery conviction met the requirements for a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act. The act imposes the mandatory sentence on a defendant who has three previous convictions for a “violent felony.”

The decision reflected an unusual alignment of the justices. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, was joined by Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and, from the left side of the bench, Stephen Breyer. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

In the high court, Assistant Federal Public Defender Brenda Bryn argued that Stokeling’s 1997 robbery conviction did not qualify as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act, or ACCA. The federal law defines violent felony as having “an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” The Florida Supreme Court has defined the “use of force” in robbery as “resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.”

Read the SCOTUS ruling in Stokeling v. United States:

Thomas, in his majority opinion, rejected Stokeling’s argument that “physical force” is force “reasonably expected to cause pain or injury.” Stokeling’s definition, Thomas said, was inconsistent with the degree of force necessary to commit common-law robbery.

“It is clear that many states’ robbery statutes would not qualify as ACCA predicates under Stokeling’s reading,” Thomas wrote. “His reading would disqualify more than just basic-robbery statutes. Departing from the common-law understanding of ‘force’ would also exclude other crimes that have as an element the force required to commit basic robbery. For instance, Florida requires the same element of ‘force’ for both armed robbery and basic robbery.”

In dissent, Sotomayor wrote: “Florida robbery, as interpreted and applied by the Florida courts, covers too broad a range of conduct to qualify as a ‘violent felony’ under the ACCA. Both the text and purpose of the ACCA—particularly as they have already been construed by our precedents—demonstrate why.”

Florida’s definition of “force” in its robbery law, she wrote, can mean essentially no force at all. “Florida law applies the label ‘robbery’ to crimes that are, at most, a half-notch above garden-variety pickpocketing or shoplifting,” Sotomayor wrote. “The court today does no service to Congress’ purposes or our own precedent in deeming such crimes to be ‘violent felonies’—and thus predicates for a 15-year mandatory-minimum sentence in federal prison.”


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