Supreme Court Rules Prior Convictions Can't Be Used to Lengthen Criminal Sentence

The Supreme Court handed down another ruling today in the case Descamps v. United States. The justices ruled in favor of the defendant, Matthew Descamps, eight to one.

The facts: Descamps was facing a 15 year jail sentence for the possession of a firearm if the Court concluded he was convicted of three previous felonies. Back in 1978, Descamps had been convicted of a burglary in California, but the question loomed as to whether this counted as a burglary for the purposes of the federal criminal law.

The end result: the Supreme Court rejected the sentencing judge's ruling that Descamps' 1978 burglary conviction counted under federal law. Their ruling now limits the use of modified categorical approach, which is when a judge "can rely on facts that are not part of the elements of an offense to determine whether a removable offense exists."

So, why does this matter, you ask? (And you're askin'.) It's now harder for the government to use the facts from a prior conviction to beef up a federal criminal sentence. If you're hungry for more, Tom Goldstein over at SCOTUSblog has a great explainer.