High Court To Debate Federal Law Meaning Of “Violent Felony”


The Supreme Court says that driving under the influence is not a “violent felony” under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, and neither is failure to report to prison or simple battery. What about using a vehicle to flee from police after being ordered to stop? The National Law Journal says the answer is a very big deal to Marcus Sykes, whose Supreme Court case will be argued Wednesday. It is an equally big deal for criminals facing tough sentences and for courts struggling to determine what constitutes a violent crime under the law.

The justices have issued seven Armed Criminal Career Act decisions in the last five years, and it doesn’t appear that the flow of cases in the lower court pipeline will ease any time soon. The statute, first enacted in 1984, requires a 15-year minimum sentence for repeat offenders convicted of possessing a firearm if they have three prior convictions for violent felonies. The battle in the lower courts over applying the statute centers on whether a defendant’s three prior convictions fall within the meaning of “violent felony” or “serious drug offense,” which triggers the statute. “The Supreme Court has set out conflicting tests, not directly conflicting, but with enough conflicting language that lower courts can pick and choose which test to apply to reach the desired result,” said lawyer David Holman. “[Lower courts] need to pick the path that most comports with the Sixth Amendment first, and the statute, second.”

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