Crime

Did SCOTUS Just Rule That Pickpocketing Is a 'Violent Felony'?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has some concerns.

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Ammentorp/Dreamstime.com

In a divided ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court seemed to set a low bar for what sort of robbery offenses count as a "violent felony" under federal law.

The case, Stokeling v. United States, involved a career criminal facing a 15-year minimum prison sentence following his latest conviction, this time on a federal gun charge. It split the Court along interesting lines. Justice Stephen Breyer, normally associated with the Court's liberal wing, voted with Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito in the majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, meanwhile, joined his more liberal colleagues—Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan—in the minority.

The actual facts of the case were not in question. After he was arrested in Florida on suspicion of burglary in 2015, police found a handgun in Denard Stokeling's backpack. He eventually pleaded guilty and was convicted of illegally possessing the gun and ammunition. Thanks to the Armed Criminal Career Act (ACCA), which sets penalties for people convicted on federal gun charges who have three or more "violent felony" convictions on their record, Stokeling faced a minimum of 15 years behind bars.

Stokeling did not dispute that he had previously been convicted of home invasion, kidnapping, and robbery. But he did say the 1997 robbery conviction, stemming from an incident where he tried to steal necklaces right off a woman's neck, should not have qualified as a "violent felony." Rather than a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for his gun conviction, Stokeling said he should be facing no more than 87 months (a little over seven years), according to CNN.

At issue was the definition of a "violent felony" under the ACCA and whether or not it encompasses Florida's definition of "robbery." According to the ACCA, a "violent felony" is "any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" that "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another."

Florida law, meanwhile, says that "robbery" is "the taking of money or other property…from the person or custody of another…when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear." And as Thomas noted in his majority opinion, the Florida Supreme Court "has explained that the 'use of force' necessary to commit robbery requires 'resistance by the victim that is overcome by the physical force of the offender.'"

In other words, robbery is not necessarily classified as a "violent felony" under the ACCA. "Physical force," on the other hand, is. But the question in this case, as SCOTUSblog pointed out in October, did not involve the level of physical force Stokeling used in the necklace incident. Rather, the Court had to determine whether it's possible, under Florida's definition of robbery, to commit the crime without using "physical force." If it is, then convictions under Florida's robbery law, and possibly other states' robbery statutes as well, wouldn't qualify as violent felonies under the ACCA.

Ultimately, the Court said it's not, with Thomas writing that the ACCA "encompasses robbery offenses that require the criminal to overcome the victim's resistance."

"Robbery that must overpower a victim's will—even a feeble or weak-willed victim—necessarily involves a physical confrontation and struggle," he wrote for the majority. "The altercation need not cause pain or injury or even be prolonged; it is the physical contest between the criminal and the victim that is itself 'capable of causing physical pain or injury.'"

Thomas was quoting the late Justice Antonin Scalia's majority decision in Johnson v. United States, which also involved the ACCA. The kind of physical force that could conceivably injure a victim, Thomas argued, "includes the amount of force necessary to overcome a victim's resistance."

But "Florida robbery…covers too broad a range of conduct to qualify as a 'violent felony' under the ACCA," wrote Sotomayor in her dissent. She particularly took issue with Thomas's wide interpretation of the word "capable." In Johnson, "the Court could not have meant 'capable' in the 'potentiality' sense," she said. "Rather, it meant it in the sense that its entire text indicates: 'force capable of causing physical pain or injury' in the sense that a 'strong' or 'substantial degree of force' can cause physical pain or injury," she added, referencing the Johnson decision.

Sotomayor provided a few examples to back up her reasoning. "As any first-year torts student (or person with a shoulder injury) quickly learns, even a tap on the shoulder is 'capable of causing physical pain or injury' in certain cases," she wrote, alluding to her recent shoulder dislocation.

Even minor uses of force fall under Florida's definition of robbery, she said. But these are not violent felonies. "For example, the force element of Florida robbery is satisfied by a pickpocket who attempts to pull free after the victim catches his arm," Sotomayor wrote. "A thief who grabs a bag from a victim's shoulder also commits Florida robbery, so long as the victim instinctively holds on to the bag's strap for a moment."

"Florida law applies the label 'robbery' to crimes that are, at most, a half-notch above garden-variety pickpocketing or shoplifting" she concluded. And locking up such offenders for 15 years is not all necessary, she suggested.

Sotomayor does bring up some interesting points. In this case, it's hard to have sympathy for Stokeling, who's clearly a career criminal (whether he deserves to be put away for 15 years is another question). But it's certainly possible to envision a scenario where a habitual pickpocketer or shoplifter is eventually convicted on a gun charge and sentenced to prison for longer than he or she deserves.

It remains to be seen what ramifications this ruling will have on future cases. In the meantime, you can read Thomas's majority opinion and Sotomayor's dissent here.

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  1. a habitual pickpocketer or shoplifter

    Has got to learn somehow how to keep their hands off of other people’s stuff.

  2. >>>”violent felony”

    ambiguous words = unambiguous prison walls.

  3. I feel no pity towards this criminal, or any like him.
    Sorry.

  4. Chief Justice John Roberts, meanwhile, joined his more liberal colleagues

    *gasp from the crowd*

  5. But it’s certainly possible to envision a scenario where a habitual pickpocketer or shoplifter is eventually convicted on a gun charge and sentenced to prison for longer than he or she deserves.

    “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

  6. What if the pickpocket plays some pocket pool? Is that a NAP violation?

  7. Personally I am fine with the majority opinion on it. Their point is pretty spot on.

    I can point a gun at you, never make contact, never actually hurt you, and steal from you.

    Anything that involves touching or interacting with another human being in order to steal from them against their will should be robbery. Anything that does not involve interaction with another human being and involves stealing should be not be robbery.

    /shrug

    Now, mandatory sentencing, on the other hand, I certainly have issues with.

    1. Yeah, the 15-year mandatory minimum seems like the more problematic thing than the definition of the types of crimes covered by the statute to me too.

  8. How is strong-arm robbery not “violent?”

    1. becus tha feeeeelz!

    2. I skimmed the article, but does it say it was a strong-arm robbery? It says steal the necklace off her body, but i didn’t catch if it was by force. A pickpocket should be capable of that without force. Still, I don’t trust Seyton to accurately portray events and don’t have much of an issue with the decision if force was involved

  9. Will someone post a link to a description of how to non-violently rip a necklace from the neck of a robbery victim?
    Didn’t think so.

    I know it is possible to resist arrest without violence, but not to tear jewelry from another human being.

    1. You can’t “rip it away” non-violently, but it can certainly be removed by a skilled pickpocket without being noticed. If it was done violently, then that instance fits the statute and he’s earned the sentence. If he attempted to remove it stealthily, then that doesn’t fit but I still think a repeat offender should get significant time behind bars

  10. Today Reason told me that violating the NAP isn’t actually violence. What happened to the libertarians?

    1. Yes this ^^. When it comes to the NAP, once again, Gorsuch is ruling Libertarian, as he should.

      What surprises me is the left end of the court, shrugging at the average citizen “instinctively” protecting their individual freedoms. Like, somehow they are baffled that the natural state of mankind is individual liberty, and they have no idea why that has not been shaken from their minds yet.

  11. where he tried to steal necklaces right off a woman’s neck, should not have qualified as a “violent felony.”

    How can you steal a necklace from a person’s neck without being violent? That isn’t picking a pocket either.

    has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another

    There’s your force, or attempted force.

    Further, if it was an “attempted” crime, that implies he was thwarted, which would generally involve force.

    Lack of sympathy.

  12. Further, I see the word “threat” present. I define threat as “imminently unavoidable harm”, ie, if you can avoid the harm by the skin of your teeth, it’s still a threat, with the clear implication that you are justified in taking whatever remedial action will prevent the threat from turning into actual harm. Far as I’m concerned, any action up to that implied by the threat is justified. If I threaten you with a gun during a robbery, you have the right to do ANYTHING to prevent my threat becoming real harm, including killing me. If I threaten to grab your necklace, the potential harm (realistically) is bruised neck, minor cuts and scrapes, even a broken arm or leg from falling down, especially if it’s on a stairway or sidewalk, where the potential consequences are easy to imagine. If my preventive actions mean pushing you on to train tracks or a road, or down a flight of stairs, too bad.

    Thus yanking a necklace off a person’s neck is a violent crime, no ifs ands or buts.

  13. Has anyone told Seyton that you can commit assault without physically contacting the other person, or how little contact is necessary for a charge of battery?

    And this is splitting hairs. Ripping a necklace off a woman’s neck is an act of violence.

  14. Another spin around the bowl for Reason.

  15. I read both the entire majority opinion and the dissent (and for fun I read Johnson vs. United States from 2010 since it was so heavily referenced in both).

    Just to be clear, the case was NOT about whether or not the defendant’s crime was specifically a violent felony. It was about whether or not the Florida law on robbery automatically meets the definition of violent felony. (It is almost ludicrous to argue that the crime wasn’t violent, he specifically grabbed the woman’s neck and then grabbed the necklace.)

    And I think the majority nailed it on this one. The minority were the ones who were trying to pick and choose from Johnson, not the majority.

    Besides, this one is easy. Regardless of Sotomayor getting some things right, when Roberts and Ginsburg both agree, the correct answer is usually the opposite.

    1. Thanks for doing the legwork. I’m more in favor of the ruling knowing that. Robbery is a violent crime. If the robbery is also a felony then we have a SC minority who doesn’t understand definitions.

  16. The wise Latina fails on this one. Coercive force is still force…

  17. Did SCOTUS Just Rule That Pickpocketing Is a ‘Violent Felony’?

    No.

    Either way, the 2nd Amendment protects the People’s right to keep and bear Arms. Including an ex-felon.

    The laws that prevent felons who are not on probation, parole, or otherwise in state custody from keeping and bearing Armaments are unconstitutional [period]

    1. Anyone can lose a Constitutional right, if subjected to due process.
      IMHO, due process, that removes a right, should be an individualized consequence, against which the individual gets to make a defense.
      Unfortunately, the courts have deemed the passage of a blanket law is due process and the laws against someone formerly convicted of some felonies falls under that definition.
      Under the theory that the courts, specifically the Supreme Court, gets to decide what is, or isn’t Constitutional, denying a former felon the RTKABA, is in compliance.

  18. You do yourselves no favors when you distort facts in support of your argument. Snatching necklaces from a woman’s neck is not “pick pocketing”. It’s a violent robbery. What the hell do you think would have happened had she tried to stop him?

    Add in his prior home invasion, kidnapping, robbery and felon in possession of a firearm convictions, and I’m happy to see him locked up until he’s too decrepit to threaten anyone ever again.

    1. As BearOldison explains above, “Just to be clear, the case was NOT about whether or not the defendant’s crime was specifically a violent felony. It was about whether or not the Florida law on robbery automatically meets the definition of violent felony.” This is about the general definition, not the particular instance. If Florida’s definition of robbery doesn’t automatically meet the standard, then it doesn’t qualify for the sentence enhancement even if an individual robbery indisputably does.

      1. And is evidence that the “legal”system has devolved into one, where common sense is abandoned at the courtroom door.

  19. I don’t see why this is a surprise. In some states, a DUI is classified as a violent crime. No, I’m not kidding.

    1. I don’t understand your sarcastic subtext here. Of course DUI is a violent crime. You were hurling a 2 ton object at 40 MPH down the road, while incapacitated. That is a clear violation of the NAP.

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  21. #MeToo, considering the proximity of pockets to a person’s genitals, wouldn’t it be sexual assault?

  22. If pickpocketing is violent, you’re doing it wrong.

  23. In this case, yes, it was a violent felony. Why does Reason continue to circle the drain of leftist apologetic faggotry?

  24. Considering how outlets like CNN are airing “stories” that have been proven to be in error or flat out lies over and over, something should be done. Look how the media attempted to destroy the Covington boys, who we now know are innocent and it was Nathan Phillips who lied about what happened. The media had no regard for the long term damage to the boys lives their reporting might cause as long as it supported their narrative and attacks on the President.

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