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Armed Career Criminal Act: Flight From Law Constitutes Violent Crime

Sykes v United States

Prior conviction for knowing or intentional flight from a law enforcement officer constitutes a violent crime for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)

Sykes v United States 131 S.Ct. 2267

Decided: December June 9, 2011 United States Supreme Court

Issue: Petitioner Sykes had prior convictions for at least three felonies including the Indiana state-law crime of “using a vehicle” to “knowingly or intentionally flee from a law enforcement officer” after being ordered to stop. On pleading guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm 18 U.S.C s922 (g) (1), the Federal District Court counted the vehicle flight as one of three prior violent felonies and invoked the 15 year mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) 18 USC s924(e). The issue was whether vehicle flight felony was “violent” within the meaning of ACCA. 

Holding: It was deemed to be a “violent” felony for the purposes of ACCA.

Facts: Petitioner Sykes pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in connection with an attempted robbery of two people at gunpoint. Two previous convictions both involved robberies at gunpoint. The third felony was a violation of Indiana’s “resisting law enforcement code” which provided that where a person “flees from a law enforcement officer, after the officer has… identified himself and ordered the person to stop…and the person uses the said vehicle to commit the offense…” the offense is categorized as a Class D felony. The District Court decided that all three convictions were for violent felonies. Sykes was therefore deemed to be subjected to the relevant mandatory 15-year minimum and was sentenced to 188 months of imprisonment. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The US Supreme Court affirmed, ruling that the flight felony was a violent one.   

Legal analysis: In the lead judgment, Justice Kennedy firstly affirmed that the correct approach to take when considering whether a particular crime is a violent felony is a “categorical” one; i.e. to consider whether the elements of the offense would lead to the conclusion that it is a violent one rather than enquiring as to the specific conduct of the particular offender. For a ‘vehicle flight’ to be considered violent under 18 U.S.C. s924 (e) (2) (B), it must be an offense that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious risk of physical injury to another”. An analogy was drawn with arson – in which the intentional release of a destructive force poses danger to others. Similarly, an act of burglary can foreseeably end in a confrontation leading to violence. A flight from a law enforcement command can lead to collateral consequences with violent and dangerous potential for others – notably the risk of collision. What’s more, once the suspect is apprehended, officers are typically required to draw guns to effect arrest, thus giving rise to further risk of injury to persons. The Supreme Court was therefore of the opinion that a commonsense categorical approach would lead to the conclusion that a vehicle flight is a violent offense.