Supreme Court To Hear Clinic Case on Sentencing Enhancement

Quarles v. United States Will Interpret Law Governing Mandatory Minimums
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January 11, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a University of Virginia School of Law clinic case that could impact felony defendants facing mandatory minimum sentences.

The high court granted cert on Friday in Quarles v. United States. The Supreme Court Litigation Clinic filed on behalf of Jamar Alonzo Quarles, who pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had three prior felony convictions, including third-degree home invasion in Michigan.

The Armed Career Criminal Act imposes a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for any felon who unlawfully possesses a firearm and who has three or more prior convictions for any “violent felony,” including a burglary conviction punishable by imprisonment for over one year. The court ruled in Taylor v. United States in 1990 that the statute uses “burglary” in its generic sense. Generic burglary is defined as an unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime.

The question before the justices is whether Taylor’s definition of generic burglary requires proof that intent to commit a crime was present at the time of unlawful entry or first unlawful remaining, as two federal appeals courts have held; or whether it is enough that the defendant formed the intent to commit a crime at any time while “remaining in” the building or structure, as the Supreme Court and three other appeals courts have held.

Quarles argues that his burglary conviction under state law lacks the requisite Taylor elements because it does not require proof of intent to commit a crime at the moment the defendant entered or first unlawfully remained inside the building.

Clinic lecturers John Elwood, Max Etchemendy, Josh Johnson and Jeremy Marwell of Vinson & Elkins are serving as co-counsel. 

“The case is important because it will determine whether criminal defendants nationwide are subject to this very serious sentence enhancement based on prior convictions for offenses that do not qualify as ‘burglary’ in the traditional sense,” the legal team said in a statement. “For instance, someone convicted of breaking into a home with the purpose of stealing valuables has committed burglary, and so has a ‘strike’ under federal law. But what about someone who enters a house for some other reason and only later decides to commit a crime — such as a hiker convicted for breaking into a cabin to shelter from a storm, and who only later decided to steal some food stored there? Or a homeless person who breaks into a warehouse for warmth, and who later decides to take a coat he finds there?”

Marwell is slated to present oral argument, which is currently unscheduled but expected in April. A decision will be issued by June.

The yearlong clinic introduces third-year students to all aspects of current U.S. Supreme Court practice through live cases. The clinic won a unanimous ruling Tuesday in Culbertson v. Berryhill.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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