U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies

U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies "Violent Felonies" under the ACCA

The U.S. Supreme Court held last week in Sykes v. United States that fleeing a law enforcement officer in an automobile is considered a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Sykes was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm, a crime that would normally carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Under the ACCA, however, if when the unlawful possession occurs, the felon has three previous convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense, the sentence increases to a minimum of 15 years.

Sykes had two previous convictions of armed robbery and one for vehicle flight which violates Indiana's Resisting Arrest law. The question for the Court was whether vehicular flight should be considered a violent felony, the result of which would increase Sykes' sentence to a minimum of 15 years.

The Court examined the relevant provisions of the ACCA which state that an offense is deemed a violent felony if it is a crime punishable by more than one year of imprisonment and that:


i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened
use of physical force against the person of another; or

ii) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.
Specifically, the Court had to decide if vehicular flight is conduct that "presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." Using what it calls the "categorical approach", the Court looked to the nature and risk of the crime generally, not at the specifics of the crime committed by the particular defendant. Comparisons of vehicular flight to the specific crimes of arson and burglary made it clear that vehicular flight involves some of the same risks as the specific crimes listed. Police chases have always been dangerous, posing a serious risk of harm to the driver, the police officer, and bystanders. Some have produced seriousinjuries or, in some instances, were fatal. Seeing no difference in the serious risks of harm posed by vehicular flight and the specific crimes listed in the statute, the Court held that vehicular flight should be considered a violent felony.
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