When is a Courthouse Escape a Violent Offense?

When is a Courthouse Escape a Violent Offense?

Jail Escape Comic
Does a criminal’s escape from custody rise to the level of a violent offense? Courts have been struggling to answer that question with any degree of certainty. The latest case to deal with the issue is the Sixth Circuit case United States v. Oaks.

In Oaks, defendant Jerry Ray Oaks had a prior conviction for escape based on an earlier attempt to flee from a courthouse. In a later case, Oaks pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and the district court in the Eastern District of Tennessee sentenced him to 120 months. Oaks appealed his sentence, challenging the district court’s use of his prior conviction for felony escape to support his sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e).

The Court stated that Oaks made his escape from a courtroom which was not in a secure facility. The Court labeled his escape as one from “nonsecure custody.” The Court was tasked with deciding whether such an escape from “nonsecure custody” is a “violent felony” for sentencing purposes.

To answer such a question the Court must decide whether an offender is significantly more likely than others to attack, or physically to resist, an apprehender, thereby producing a “serious potential risk of physical injury.” Chambers vs. United States, 555 U.S. at 128-29 (2009). The Court found that in this case, as in Chambers, “a United States Sentencing Commission report helps provide a conclusive, negative answer.” 

The Court decided that the act of escape from “nonsecure custody” is rarely violent. The Court relied on statistics that showed that out of one hundred seventy-seven instances of escape from “nonsecure custody” in 2006 and 2007, only 1.7% ever resulted in injury. The Court went on to say that a felony is not necessarily violent just because past commissions of that felony have involved violence. By way of example, the Court pointed to Chambers where the Supreme Court found that “failing to report” is not a violent felony even though previous commissions of that crime were known to have involved violence. 

The Court ultimately held that an escape from “nonsecure custody” is not a violent felony for sentencing purposes. They were careful to say that some courtrooms may be part of secure facilities and an escape from them may amount to an escape from “secure custody” thus necessitating a different decision. The Court remanded the case for resentencing.

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