Mathis v. United States: SCOTUS Clarifies When the Categorical Approach Must be Used

Mathis v. United States


Introduction: Mathis v. United States

On June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court issued an important decision titled Mathis v. United States, 579 U.S. ___ (2016) [PDF version]. The case concerned whether five Iowa state court convictions for burglary could qualify as predicate offenses in federal court for enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA). The issue in Mathis addressed the fact that the Iowa burglary statutes under which the petitioner was convicted encompassed a broader range criminal conduct than does the generic offense of burglary found in the ACCA. The Eighth Circuit had applied what is called the “modified categorical approach,” wherein it looked at the record of the petitioner's burglary convictions and determined that his criminal conduct was the covered by the definition of the generic offense of burglary rather than by the provisions of the Iowa statute that included other criminal conduct. However, by a 5-3 majority, the Supreme Court held that, because the elements of Iowa's burglary statutes were broader than those of generic burglary, the categorical approach must be used (meaning that the conviction could only serve as an ACCA predicate offense if the elements of the state statute were a categorical match with the elements of generic burglary, meaning that any conviction under the state statute would have to necessarily be generic burglary).

Although Mathis is not an immigration case, its precedent will have effects on immigration law. For example, immigration adjudicators and federal courts are often tasked with determining whether an alien who is convicted of an offense was convicted of committing an immigration aggravated felony [see article]. Often, the question of whether the categorical approach or the modified categorical approach must be employed in determining whether the alien's conviction was for an aggravated felony [see article for example]. It is worth noting that this decision builds upon previous Supreme Court decisions in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990) [PDF version] and Descamps v. United States, 570 U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 2276 (2013) [PDF version], both of which we have discussed on this site [see article].

In this article, we will examine the decision in Mathis and discuss its possible effects on immigration law in the criminal aliens [see category] context.

Facts of the Case and Procedural History

The petitioner, Richard Mathis, pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The government asked the District Court to impose a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the ACCA. Specifically, under 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1) and (e)(2)(B)(ii), an alien who is convicted under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) and who has at least three prior convictions for “burglary, arson, or extortion…” “shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not less than 15 years…” In requesting enhanced sentencing under the ACCA, the government relied upon the petitioner's five prior convictions under Iowa state law for burglary.

The District Court found that the Iowa burglary statutes swept more broadly than the generic common-law definition of “burglary” as defined in Taylor. It decided to apply the modified categorical approach wherein it looked at the facts contained in the record of the petitioner's convictions and compared the defendant's conduct to the elements of generic burglary. After determining that the petitioner had burglarized structures and not vehicles, it applied enhanced sentencing under the ACCA. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit upheld the District Court's decision. The petitioner then appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted review.

Opinion of the Court

The opinion of the court was written by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Sonia Sotomayor (Justices Kennedy and Thomas also wrote concurring opinions).

Under Supreme Court precedent found in Taylor, the generic offense of burglary requires unlawful entry into a “building or other structure.” The statute that the petitioner was convicted for violating, section 702.12 of the Iowa Code, defines burglary as unlawful entry into “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle.” The question for the Supreme Court was whether the categorical approach or modified categorical approach should be used to analyze whether the petitioner's convictions were predicate offenses for purpose of ACCA enhanced sentencing.

In the opinion of the Court, Justice Kagan phrased the key question as follows:

The question in this case is whether ACCA makes an exception to [the rule that a crime may only be an ACCA predicate offense if its elements are the same as, or narrower than, the generic offense] when a defendant is convicted under a statute that lists multiple, alternative means of satisfying one (or more) of its elements.

Justice Kagan explained that there is an important distinction between the elements of a crime and the facts of a crime. The elements of the crime are the “constituent parts” of a crime's legal definition that the prosecution must prove in order to sustain a conviction or that the defendant must admit to in plea proceedings. By contrast, Justice Kagan explained that the “facts” are “mere real-world things-extraneous to the crime's legal requirements.” This means, in short, that the facts need not be found by the jury nor admitted by a defendant in order to sustain a conviction.

Under the categorical approach, the petitioner's burglary convictions would not be predicate offenses because it would be impossible to determine whether petitioner's convictions stemmed from unlawful entry into a “building or other structure,” or whether it stemmed from unlawful entry into a “land, water, or air vehicle.” Such a result would be similar to the Court's decision in Descamps, wherein the Court found, after comparing the elements of a generic burglary offense to a California burglary statute, that the California statute swept more broadly because it also encompassed shoplifting.

Under the modified categorical approach, the Court would be permitted to look at the facts of the conviction to determine whether the actual conduct that led to the petitioner's conviction under the categorically overbroad Iowa statute was limited to conduct that falls under the generic offense of burglary as defined in Taylor. The Court permits the modified categorical approach to be used in cases in which a statute is “divisible.” Justice Kagan explains that a divisible statute lists elements in the alternative, thereby listing multiple crimes. To illustrate what a divisible burglary statute would be, Justice Kagan posits a statute that would specifically criminalize “the lawful entry or the unlawful entry” of a premises with the intent to steal (referencing the statute in question in Descamps). In such a case, if the defendant were convicted of an offense with unlawful entry as its element (meaning the jury would have been required to find specifically that the defendant had entered a premises unlawfully, or the defendant would have had to admit such in plea proceedings), then the conviction would fall under the definition of “generic burglary” for purpose of being an ACCA predicate. In analyzing a divisible statute under the modified categorical approach, appellate courts may review a limited class of documents used by the sentencing court to determine which elements of the offense the defendant was convicted of violating. As we noted earlier, the District Court and the Eighth Circuit applied the modified categorical approach in the instant case.

Of section 702.12 of the Iowa Code, Justice Kagan stated the following:

This case concerns a different kind of alternatively phrased law: not one that lists multiple elements disjunctively, but instead one that enumerates various factional means of committing a single element. (Citing to Schad v. Arizona, 501 U.S. 624, 636 (1991) [PDF version]).

Justice Kagan analogized the statute to a hypothetical statute that would require the use of a “deadly weapon” where the use of a “knife, gun, bat, or similar weapon” would qualify. In such a case, the categorical approach would be used rather than the modified categorical approach. This is because while the statute lists various ways of committing the offense, they are always of committing a single element or crime rather than different elements or crimes. Accordingly, in order to sustain a conviction under such a statute, the jury could convict the defendant even if the jurors do not agree on the particular “deadly weapon” used so long as they agree that a deadly weapon was used (the defendant would need not admit to using a specific weapon in plea proceedings).

Returning to the state statute in question in the instant case, Justice Kagan explained that “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle” are not alternative elements “going toward the creation of separate crimes.” To support this position, Justice Kagan cited to the Iowa Supreme Court decision in State v. Duncan, 312 N.W. 2d 519, 523 (Iowa 1981), which explained that each of the terms in the Iowa statute served as an “alternative method of committing the single crime” of burglary. In short, this means that, while the statute lists multiple means of committing burglary, they all refer to the same single locational element. However, the District Court and the Eighth Circuit read the locations in the statute as listing different elements disjunctively (meaning that the different locations were in fact referring to different offenses in the alternative), thereby necessitating the modified categorical approach.

Because the majority found that the locations section 702.12 of the Iowa Code referred to different means of satisfying a single locational element rather than different elements, it held that, consistent with its precedents in Taylor and Descamps, the District Court was in error in using the modified categorical approach. Under Taylor, where the elements of a state crime are broader than the generic offense (in this case, burglary), the state crime cannot serve as an ACCA predicate offense for enhanced sentencing. Under such a case, the facts or means of the conviction make no difference. Thus, the majority in the instant case that it is irrelevant whether the facts indicated or suggested that the petitioner burglarized a “building” or “structure” rather than a “water, land, or air vehicle” because such a determination was not necessary for a conviction under the Iowa statute (e.g., the jury could have hypothetically reached a guilty verdict without agreeing on what exactly the petitioner burglarized). Justice Kagan set forth a general rule for statutes that are similarly constructed to the Iowa burglary statute in the instant case:

The itemized construction [where different means are listed for satisfying a single element] gives a sentencing court no special warrant to explore the facts of an offense, rather than to determine the crime's elements and compare them with the generic definition.

Justice Kagan explained, in following Taylor, that it is “impermissible for 'a particular crime [to] sometimes count toward enhancement and sometimes not, depending on the facts of the case.'” Interestingly, the opinion of the court recognizes that this can come across as “counterintuitive,” for in many cases, such as the Iowa statute in question, a sentencing judge will either know or can easily discover the means through which the defendant committed an offense.

Justice Kagan listed three reasons why the Court established the “elements-based inquiry” and why the majority saw fit to continue following the approach in Mathis:

1. The text of the ACCA favors the approach because it refers to previous convictions rather than to what the defendant has previously done (separate of a conviction).
2. A construction of the ACCA allowing a sentencing judge to go further would raise “serious Sixth Amendment concerns.” This is because only a jury and not a judge may find facts that increase a maximum penalty under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000)
[PDF version].
3. The approach is more fair to defendants because statements of “non-elemental fact” in the records of prior convictions “are prone to error precisely because their proof is unnecessary” citing Descamps.

Justice Kagan concluded the opinion of the Court as follows:

Because the elements of Iowa's burglary law are broader than those of generic burglary, Mathis's convictions under that law cannot give rise to an ACCA sentence. We accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

Although the concurring and dissenting opinions are not precedential, they are worth reviewing given the likelihood that similar issues may come before the Court in the future.

Justice Anthony Kennedy authored a concurring opinion that agreed with the result, but expressed reservation with the results of the line of cases beginning with Taylor. Justice Kennedy stated that the decision in Mathis, while correct, “is a stark illustration of the arbitrary and inequitable results produced by applying an elements based approach to this sentencing scheme.” Justice Kennedy agreed with Justice Samuel Alito's contention in his dissenting opinion that Congress “could not have intended” that a defendant who clearly committed generic burglary (from the evidence in the record) to escape the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions of the ACCA. Justice Kennedy stated that Congress “is capable” of amending the language of the ACCA to address these concerns, and that “continued congressional inaction in the face of a system that each year proves more unworkable should require this Court to revisit its precedents in an appropriate case.”1 Given the narrow 5-3 majority in Mathis, Justice Kennedy's reservations about the result could be pivotal the next time a similar issue comes before the Supreme Court.

However, while Justice Kennedy expressed reservations with the result, Justice Clarence Thomas offered a concurring opinion that would have gone farther than the opinion of the Court. Justice Thomas took the position that the fact of a prior conviction is an element of the crime (for triggering enhanced penalties) that must be found by a jury, not a judge. Justice Thomas expressed the same sentiment in his concurring opinion in Descamps.

The first dissent was authored by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both Justices were in the majority in Descamps. Justice Breyer's dissent stated that in the case of a statute that “contains explicit (not hypothetical) statutory alternatives,” it is likely that the charging documents “will list one or more of these alternatives.” Accordingly, the dissent took the position that when the statute (1) lists the alternative means by which a defendant can commit the crime and (2) the charging documents make explicitly clear that the state alleged (and the jury or trial judge necessarily found) that only an alternative that matches the federal version of the crime, the state court conviction should be found to match the federal crime. In the case of Mathis, the Justice Breyer explained that the charging documents made it explicitly clear that the petitioner had been alleged to have burglarized “structures” and “buildings” rather than land, water, or air vehicles. Accordingly, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg would have found that the state conviction met the definition of “burglary” found in the ACCA. Justice Breyer also took the position that this opinion was consistent with the precedent of Taylor and Descamps.

Justice Samuel Alito dissented separately from Justices Breyer and Ginsburg. Justice Alito was also the lone dissenter in Descamps, and has taken issue with Taylor. Like Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, Justice Alito noted that the charging documents for the petitioner's Iowa convictions made explicit that he had burglarized structures (a “house and garage,” a “garage,” a “machine shed,” and a “storage shed”). Justice Alito advocated that the Court adopt a “real world approach” that would allow the sentencing court to look at the record in an earlier case to determine if the conviction was an ACCA prerequisite.

Conclusion: Immigration Effects of Mathis

Although Mathis is not an immigration decision, its precedent will be binding on immigration adjudicators and lower courts in determining whether a conviction for violating a non-divisible state statute is a categorical match with a corresponding federal immigration statute. To illustrate, the Attorney General referred two BIA decisions to herself in the Matter of Chairez and Sama, 26 I&N Dec. 686 (BIA 2015) [PDF version] [see article] wherein she will determine the proper approach for determining “divisibility” for immigration adjudicators within the meaning of Descamps.2

On the whole, Mathis is a beneficial decision for aliens who are charged with having committed certain immigration aggravated felonies. Under the categorical approach, courts or adjudicators may only look at the language of the state statute and the language of the federal statute to determine whether the elements are the same. Under the modified categorical approach, courts may look at the evidence in the record to determine whether an alien's conduct matches the definition of the federal immigration provision. Accordingly, there is less room to find that the federal provision is triggered (generally an aggravated felony in the immigration context) if courts are restricted to the categorical approach. Mathis clarifies that the more limited categorical approach must be used if a state statute lists different means (that do not need to be proven for a conviction) for satisfying a single element required for a conviction.


  1. To this effect, Justice Kennedy cited as an example Nijhawan v. Holder, 5587 U.S. 29, (2009) [PDF version] wherein the Court interpreted the immigration aggravated felony found in section 101(a)(43)(M)(i) as requiring the circumstance-specific approach [see article and article for discussion].
  2. It is quite possible that the Attorney General will find that Mathis settles the issue. This is because Mathis holds that an “element” must be “proved beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain a conviction” (see syllabus for Mathis).