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Justices rule vehicular flight from police is 'violent' felony

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The nation’s highest court affirmed an Indianapolis federal judge’s ruling, finding that someone who flees from police in a vehicle is committing a “crime of violence” that justifies a longer sentence.

On June 9, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in Sykes v. United States, No. 09-11311, ruling 6-3 that vehicular fleeing warrants an enhanced criminal sentence for habitual offenders pursuant to the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

This ruling was one of the latest in a series in recent years that has addressed the scope of this federal act and focused on what is considered “violent.” Attorneys say the holding is likely going to impact several pending cases throughout the nation, including at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Marcus Sykes pleaded guilty in 2008 to being a felon in possession of a firearm after he’d been arrested for brandishing a gun while attempting to rob two people sitting in a parked car outside an Indianapolis liquor store. Though Sykes didn’t follow through on his robbery attempt, police saw him toss the gun aside and arrested him. The probation office issued a pre-sentence report concluding that he was subject to a sentencing enhancement under the ACCA because of three previous violent felony convictions – two 1996 convictions for robbery and one in 2003 for resisting law enforcement in a vehicle, a Class D felony under state statute. Sykes objected to the sentence enhancement on grounds that his conviction for resisting law enforcement was not considered a violent felony under Indiana Code 35-44-3-3(b)(1)(A).

U.S. Judge Larry McKinney in the Southern District of Indiana rejected Sykes’ argument and applied the enhancement, resulting in a 188-month prison sentence. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Six of the nation’s top jurists agreed, finding the crime was violent. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with the result in his own opinion, but Justices Antonin Scalia, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

In the 12-page majority opinion, the justices backed away from a test created in a 2008 case calling for judges to determine whether a crime is “purposeful, violent, and aggressive” when considering whether it is a violent felony eligible for the ACCA. Instead, the court looked at the particular facts of this case and statistical information about vehicular flight that were not included in the District or appellate records by the government.

“Congress chose to frame ACCA in general and qualitative, rather than encyclopedic terms,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “It could have defined violent felonies by compiling a list of specific covered offenses. Congress instead stated a normative principle. Although this approach may at times be more difficult for courts to implement, it is within congressional power to enact.”

But Justice Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion that criticizes the ruling as well as Congress for “shoddy draftsmanship” of the ACCA. He wrote that the majority’s holding “will sow further confusion” because it moves away from precedent on the “purposeful, violent, and aggressive” test and instead narrows the application to “strict liability, negligence, and recklessness crimes.”

“We face a Congress that puts forth an ever-increasing volume of laws in general, and of criminal laws in particular,” the dissent says. “It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws. And no surprise that our indulgence of imprecisions that violate the Constitution encourages imprecisions that violate the Constitution. Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the Congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nitty-gritty. In the field of criminal law, at least, it is time to call a halt. I do not think it would be a radical step – indeed, I think it would be highly responsible – to limit ACCA to the named violent crimes. Congress can quickly add what it wishes. Because the majority prefers to let vagueness reign, I respectfully dissent.”

Justices Kagan and Ginsburg also joined in a separate dissent, saying that they would have deferred to what the Indiana Legislature intended when it distinguished between the various vehicular flight types outlined in sentencing statute.

Some attorneys predict this latest ruling will lead to more confusion for the practicing bar and the judges who must decide these issues.

Brian Paul with Ice Miller in Indianapolis expects he will lose one case already pending before the 7th Circuit, as it deals with the same issue and the appellate Circuit will likely be bound by what the SCOTUS has ruled.

“They’ll have to reject our argument and we’re going to lose at that level,” he said. “But what this means for the future is difficult to tell. This just doesn’t advance the ball in terms of analysis of the Armed Career Criminal Act. We’ll continue to get cases dealing with different crimes where the court must decide each one, and the problem is that each time it will have to be considered individually by the court rather than there being any guidance or standard.”•
 

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  1. Not enough copperheads here to care anymore, is my guess. Otherwise, a totally pointless gesture. ... Oh wait: was this done because somebody want to avoid bad press - or was it that some weak kneed officials cravenly fear "protest" violence by "urban youths.."

  2. Should be beat this rap, I would not recommend lion hunting in Zimbabwe to celebrate.

  3. No second amendment, pro life, pro traditional marriage, reagan or trump tshirts will be sold either. And you cannot draw Mohammed even in your own notebook. And you must wear a helmet at all times while at the fair. And no lawyer jokes can be told except in the designated protest area. And next year no crucifixes, since they are uber offensive to all but Catholics. Have a nice bland day here in the Lego movie. Remember ... Everything is awesome comrades.

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  5. All these sites putting up all the crap they do making Brent Look like A Monster like he's not a good person . First off th fight actually started not because of Brent but because of one of his friends then when the fight popped off his friend ran like a coward which left Brent to fend for himself .It IS NOT a crime to defend yourself 3 of them and 1 of him . just so happened he was a better fighter. I'm Brent s wife so I know him personally and up close . He's a very caring kind loving man . He's not abusive in any way . He is a loving father and really shouldn't be where he is not for self defense . Now because of one of his stupid friends trying to show off and turning out to be nothing but a coward and leaving Brent to be jumped by 3 men not only is Brent suffering but Me his wife , his kids abd step kidshis mom and brother his family is left to live without him abd suffering in more ways then one . that man was and still is my smile ....he's the one real thing I've ever had in my life .....f@#@ You Lafayette court system . Learn to do your jobs right he maybe should have gotten that year for misdemeanor battery but that s it . not one person can stand to me and tell me if u we're in a fight facing 3 men and u just by yourself u wouldn't fight back that you wouldn't do everything u could to walk away to ur family ur kids That's what Brent is guilty of trying to defend himself against 3 men he wanted to go home tohisfamily worse then they did he just happened to be a better fighter and he got the best of th others . what would you do ? Stand there lay there and be stomped and beaten or would u give it everything u got and fight back ? I'd of done the same only I'm so smallid of probably shot or stabbed or picked up something to use as a weapon . if it was me or them I'd do everything I could to make sure I was going to live that I would make it hone to see my kids and husband . I Love You Brent Anthony Forever & Always .....Soul 1 baby

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