WASHINGTON — A long-ago burglary in Stockton, Calif. set Matthew R. Descamps down a tumultuous road that’s now led him, improbably, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Friday, against all odds, the court agreed to hear Descamps’ challenge to a judge’s determination that he’s an armed career criminal. The determination, rooted in his admitted 1978 burglary of a grocery store on Stockton’s North California Street, dramatically boosted a subsequent prison sentence.
For now, even breaching the courtroom doors is a victory of sorts for the 55-year-old Descamps, a one-time heroin and methamphetamine user currently incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. Few of the roughly 10,000 petitions received annually get a full hearing before the high court. Last term, after carefully picking and choosing, the court issued a mere 75 decisions.
“Because of the small number of cases that are accepted, it’s always surprising,” Descamps’ court-appointed appellate attorney Dan B. Johnson said in a telephone interview Friday, “but I thought that this issue was really ripe.”
The legal question to be heard by the court sometime after October is a technical one, though rich with real-world consequences for inmates and law enforcement alike.
Descamps argues that though he pled guilty to second-degree burglary in the 1978 case, this should not have counted as a violent felony when it later came time for a court to determine whether he was an armed career criminal.
Being labeled an armed career criminal secured Descamps a 262-month sentence following his last conviction, more than twice what he would have otherwise faced.
Here is where it gets complicated.
The federal law allowing stiffer sentences for armed career criminals lists burglary as a qualifying offense, and defines burglary simply as “unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” The California state definition of burglary is much more sweeping and includes elements that wouldn’t necessarily fit under the federal definition; for instance, it covers tents.
Descamps’ last trial judge, nonetheless, looked at the transcript and other documents from the 1978 burglary case to determine that the Stockton conviction fit the federal definition and could count as a prior violent felony. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that judges can take this approach in sentencing in cases like this. Other appellate courts have disagreed.
While acknowledging that “lower courts have taken different approaches,” the Obama administration’s solicitor general argued that it was too soon to take up the issue.
Johnson is based in Spokane, near where Descamps’ last known crime occurred. In 2005, deputy sheriffs in Stevens County, north of Spokane, busted Descamps following a high-speed chase. They found inside his coat a loaded .32-caliber revolver, and he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a handgun.
A single father of one son, Descamps has led a disquieting life since his earliest days in San Joaquin County. He started drinking alcohol and using intravenous drugs at the age of 10 and was subsequently hooked on both meth and booze, according to court documents.
Though he worked as a painter and commercial fisherman, he’s struggled with both physical disease and impulsive behavior. He suffered a concussion in a one fight, and lost teeth through various travails.
“I don’t want to tell anybody else about my life, or anything about my parents and all that junk,” Descamps told a San Joaquin County judge in December 1978, a court transcript shows. “It’s none of their business. I don’t want to tell them nothing.”
All told, Descamps had five prior felony convictions at the time of his 2005 sentencing, including a 1976 robbery for which he was sentenced to the California Youth Authority, and a later threat to kill a federal judge. In one of his handwritten court filings, he repeatedly refers to the last judge who sentenced him as “dishonorable,” even as he pleads for other judges to hear him out.
“What don’t you understand?” Descamps scrawled in one filing, adding, “I want my motion heard…please help me.”