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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