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SCOTUS: Definition of burglary includes non-traditional homes

Burglary is most often charged as a state crime, but it can have federal implications. Burglary is generally defined as unlawful entry into a dwelling with the intent to commit a felony. It is considered a violent felony and counts as a "strike" for the purposes of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and for state-level "three strikes" laws like the one in Washington.

The ACCA mandates a 15-year sentence for people convicted of firearms offenses after three previous convictions involving specified felonies, including residential burglary. The potential federal effect of a burglary conviction was why the U.S. Supreme Court recently took up a pair of cases involving the definition of burglary.

It may surprise you that residential burglary is considered a violent crime. After all, many such burglaries occur when no one is home, so no violence occurs. That said, home burglary is often classified as a violent crime because it carries a substantial risk of a violent confrontation with the homeowner.

Would stealing from an RV, mobile home or tent be considered burglary?

Yes, for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. (Vehicles are specifically exempted from Washington's definition of residential burglary.)

Due to a previous Supreme Court opinion, the ACCA relies on a generic definition of burglary. When the federal government determines whether a state burglary conviction counts toward the three "strikes" in the ACCA, it compares the legal elements of that state's burglary statute with those assumed by the ACCA. If the elements are the same, the state conviction counts as an ACCA strike.

In the two cases recently brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, the defendants claimed their state burglary convictions shouldn't count as ACCA strikes. The ACCA definition of burglary specifies that the unlawful entry be into a "building or structure," the defendants argued. The burglary statutes in their states included vehicles in addition to buildings and structures. Does burglarizing a non-structure such as a tent or vehicle count as a strike under the ACCA?

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court decided that it does. Both of the state statutes contained language including, as habitations, vehicles that had been adapted for or customarily used for overnight accommodation. The justices pointed out that such a robbery would create a similar risk of a violent confrontation with the vehicle's owner. The court added that the burglary "of a mobile home, an RV, [and even] a camping tent" would meet the definition of burglary used in the ACCA.

In other words, if you were convicted of burglarizing a tent, an RV or a car that someone has been sleeping in, that conviction would count as a "strike" under the federal ACCA.

For more information about your legal rights, contact Pewitt Law, PLLC. 

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