Supreme Court finds fleeing in vehicle is violent felony

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[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-3 in Sykes v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that fleeing after being ordered to stop is a violent felony within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) [18 USC § 924(e)]. Delivering the opinion for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy analyzed the case by comparing the violence in running to the violence in burglaries:

Burglary is dangerous because it can end in confrontation leading to violence. The same is true of vehicle flight, but to an even greater degree. The attempt to elude capture is a direct challenge to an officer’s authority. It is a provocative and dangerous act that dares, and in a typical case requires, the officer to give chase. The felon’s conduct gives the officer reason to believe that the defendant has something more serious than a traffic violation to hide.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurrence. Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented, writing that she believes there are too many distinctions in ways to flee a police officer to rule all of them “violent felonies”: “a person may fail to heed an officer’s command to pull over, but otherwise drive in a lawful manner, perhaps just trying to find a better place to stop.” Justice Antonin Scalia also dissented, and focused his remarks on the vagueness of the ACCA.

We try to include an ACCA residual-clause case in about every second or third volume of the United States Reports. As was perhaps predictable, instead of producing a clarification of the Delphic residual clause, today’s opinion produces a fourth ad hoc judgment that will sow further confusion. Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Four times is enough. We should admit that ACCA’s residual provision is a drafting failure and declare it void for vagueness.

Kennedy addressed this in the majority opinion: “Although this approach may at times be more difficult for courts to implement, it is within congressional power to enact.”

The residual clause of the ACCA states that, “the term ‘violent felony’ means any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, or ‘otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The ACCA’s intent is to impose harsher and longer sentences on “career criminals.” The Court has analyzed it several times in recent terms. Earlier this month, the Court unanimously ruled in McNeill v. United States [JURIST report] that a federal sentencing court must determine whether “an offense under State law” is a “serious drug offense” under the ACCA by consulting the “maximum term of imprisonment” applicable to a defendant’s prior state drug offense at the time of the defendant’s conviction for that offense. In March 2010, they ruled in Johnson v. United States [JURIST report] that a “violent felony” requires the use of physical force. The Court declared in Chambers v. United States [JURIST report] that failure to report to prison does not constitute a “violent felony” in January 2009. United States v. Rodriquez [JURIST report], decided in May 2008, clarified that for purposes of increasing a sentence under the ACCA a conviction qualifies as a predicate serious drug offense even when the crime is made punishable by a 10-year prison term only because of additional penalties imposed on repeat offenders.

Read more detail on JURIST – Paper Chase

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