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Defining “Violent Offense” Under The Armed Career Criminal Act: Felony Driving While Intoxicated

Supreme Court of the United States

Larry Begay, Petitioner


United States

128 S. Ct. 1581

Decided April 16, 2008

Issue: Whether the offense of driving under the influence of alcohol falls within the definition of “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, for the purpose of imposing the higher than standard minimum prison sentence of 15 years.

Holding: Held that the New Mexico felony offense of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) is not a “violent felony” within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes a mandatory 15-year prison term upon felons who unlawfully possess a firearm and who have three or more convictions for violent felonies.

Facts: Petitioner, Larry Begay was previously arrested for threatening his sister and aunt with a rifle. Begay subsequently accepted that he had committed a felony and pleaded guilty to the federal charge of unlawful possession of a firearm in violation of §922(g)(1).

The pre-sentence report found that Begay had 12 previous convictions for DUI which in the state of New Mexico becomes a felony offense (punishable by a prison term of more than one year) on the fourth (or subsequent) time it is committed.
Therefore the sentencing judge concluded that:
– Begay had at least three prior convictions for a crime “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year”
– Begay’s three previous felony DUI convictions involved behaviour which presented a “serious potential risk of physical injury to another”.
The judge therefore concluded that Begay had three or more prior convictions for a “violent felony” as defined by the ACCA and should therefore receive a custodial sentence in line with the minimum mandatory sentence recommended therein of 15 years.

Begay appealed, claiming that DUI is not a “violent felony” within the terms of the statute. This appeal was then rejected by the Court of Appeal on a majority vote of 2:1, and subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court.

Legal Analysis: Felons convicted of possession of a firearm face an ordinary prison sentence of up to 10 years for an ordinary offense under §924(a)(2). The Armed Career Criminal Act §924(c)(1) imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for an offender with three prior convictions “for a violent felony or a serious drug offense.”

The ACCA defines “violent felony” as “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 or 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. 924(c)(2)(B)

The ACCA gives the specific illustrative examples of burglary, arson, extortion, or crimes involving the use of explosives as the types of act which fall within the scope of this statute.

The inclusion of these examples indicates that Congress intended this statute to cover similar crimes both in kind and degree of risk posed, to the examples listed, rather than to encompass all crimes which “present a serious potential risk of physical injury to another”.

The history of the ACCA further confirms this interpretation as prior to the enactment of the current language the Act previously specified that the enhanced sentence should be applied to offenders with “three or more previous convictions for robbery or burglary.” Congress then expanded this definition to include crimes against the person (clause (ii)), and in doing so rejected a broader wording which would have covered every offense involving a substantial risk of the use of “physical force against the person or property of another.” Instead, enacting the current wording and describing clause (ii) in the House Report as including “State and Federal felonies against property such as burglary, arson, extortion, use of explosives and similar crimes as predicate offenses where the conduct involved presents a serious risk of injury to a person.”

DUI differs from the example crimes provided in the statute in at least one important respect. The listed crimes all typically involve purposeful “violent” and “aggressive” conduct. By contrast statutes which forbid driving under the influence of alcohol do not insist on purposeful, violent or aggressive conduct; they are comparable to other crimes of strict liability where there need not have been criminal intention.

The Armed Career Criminal Act was enacted with the purpose of focussing on the specific danger posed when a particular type of offender – a violent criminal or drug trafficker – possesses a gun. It looks to the criminal history of an offender, and the types of crimes committed in order to determine whether they are a “career criminal” and the kind and degree of danger he would pose if in possession of a firearm.
In this respect prior crimes involving intentional or purposeful conduct (as in burglary or arson), show more relevance to the possibility of future danger with a firearm than strict liability crimes such as DUI. Without this distinction the 15-year mandatory sentence imposed by the ACCA would apply to a host of crimes, which although dangerous, would not be committed by those ordinarily labelled as “armed career criminals”.

Applying these principles the Court concluded that the New Mexico crime of “driving under the influence” falls outside the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s clause (ii) definition of “violent” felony.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed in the relevant parts and the case remanded for proceedings consistent with the opinion given by the Court.