The Supreme Court decided its second case this term involving the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). In Sykes v. U.S. (09-11311) the Court decided the question: "Whether using a vehicle while knowingly or intentionally fleeing from a law enforcement officer after being ordered to stop constitutes a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)?" In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that felony vehicle flight, as proscribed by Indiana law, is a violent felony for purposes of ACCA.
The ACCA mandates a fifteen-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for anyone convicted under 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(1), if that person has previously been convicted of three or more violent felonies. Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B) violent felony is "any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" 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 use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The Supreme Court decided whether fleeing from police in a vehicle is a violent felony under the residual clause, § 924(e)(2)(B), which quantifies other crimes as violent felonies if they" present a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."
In Sykes, the defendant, Marcus Sykes, pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e). As a result, the district court enhanced Sykes' sentence under ACCA because Sykes previously had been found guilty of three violent felonies-two convictions in 1996 for robbery and one in 2003 for resisting law enforcement, which is a class D felony under Indiana law for fleeing law enforcement in a vehicle.
At the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the appeals court determined that a prior conviction for resisting law enforcement qualified as a violent felony conviction, for purposes of application of the ACCA in the defendant's sentencing for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The Supreme Court determined by using the "categorical approach" to the ACCA that Indiana's prohibition on flight from an officer by driving a vehicle presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another and as a result, justified inclusion within the residual provision of § 924(e)(2)(B). The Court explained that "when a perpetrator defies a law enforcement command by fleeing in a car, the determination to elude capture makes a lack of concern for the safety of property and persons of pedestrians and other drivers an inherent part of the offense." The Court further noted that "[e]ven if the criminal attempting to elude capture drives without going at full speed or going the wrong way, he creates the possibility that police will, in a legitimate and lawful manner, exceed or almost match his speed or use force to bring him within their custody." Thus, a risk of violence is inherent to vehicle flight and using a vehicle to knowingly flee from the police after being ordered to stop "involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." Therefore, the Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit's decision and held that Sykes' use of his vehicle to flee from police counted as a "violent felony" that justified a longer sentence under the ACCA.
The case is Sykes v. U.S., No. 09-11311, dated June 9, 2011. To review the full opinion, click here.