U.S. high court overrules harser sentence for state man

SPOKANE, Wash. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a former Colville man should not have gotten a harsher penalty for a crime because a judge had investigated his previous offenses.

The 8-1 decision came in the case of Matthew Descamps, who was convicted of possessing a firearm in 2005. He could have been sentenced to a decade in prison. But since he had been convicted of multiple crimes, he fell under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act. That required a longer sentence if the defendant has three prior convictions for violent felonies.

Descamps argued that his 1978 conviction for burglary wasn’t violent and didn’t count. The federal judge investigated the record himself and decided that it was relevant. Descamps appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed the decision.

Descamps, 56, who has been incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., is now eligible for re-sentencing.

“I obviously think they made the right decision,” said Spokane attorney Dan Johnson, who represented Descamps and was successful is his first petition to the Supreme Court. “It was an interesting experience.”

Descamps is serving nearly 22 years in prison for a shooting that occurred in Stevens County in March 2005 when he fired a .32-caliber handgun into the side of a vehicle. He later acknowledged firing the weapon to intimidate a man who owed him money for drugs.

His sentence was extended from 10 to nearly 22 years after U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle decided that, based on a guilty plea in a 1978 California burglary, Descamps should receive a longer sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

That 1978 burglary conviction stemmed from unlawful entry into a Stockton, Calif., convenience store.

In arguments before the court in January, Johnson contended that Descamps was not an “armed career criminal” and should not have received the longer sentence. Johnson argued that Van Sickle erred because California’s burglary law did not distinguish that crime as violent.

Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Benjamin Horwich said the longer sentence was justified.

All but one of the high court’s nine justices sided with Johnson. In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said lower courts went too far in examining Descamps’ trial records and allowed too much speculation about the violent nature of the 1978 crime in California. That kind of speculating should be done by a jury, not a judge determining sentencing, Kagan wrote.

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