Chambers v. United States: filling in the gaps when interpreting the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Author:Whitescarver, April K.
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION.

    The Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") requires a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence when a felon is convicted of possessing a firearm and has three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense. (1) In the text of the ACCA, "violent felony" is defined by two clauses. (2) The second clause contains a list of enumerated specific offenses and concludes with a broad residual provision, specifically "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." (3) However, courts continue to interpret the second clause and reach different conclusions regarding whether certain crimes are violent felonies within the meaning of the ACCA. This is a problem because ambiguities in a criminal statute should be decided in favor of the accused. (4)

    Presently, the imposition of an ACCA mandatory minimum fifteen-year sentence hangs on whether a court considers an unenumerated felony to be violent. (5) In James v. United States, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (6) The Court held that a felony conviction for attempted burglary constituted a "violent felony" under the second clause. (7) Conversely, in Begay v. United States, the Court reversed the judgment of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. (8) The Court held that a felony conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol did not constitute a "violent felony" and fell outside the scope of the second clause. (9)

    This year, in Chambers v. United States, the Court reinterpreted the second clause to decide whether a conviction for escape based on failure-to-report for confinement constituted a "violent felony" within the meaning of the ACCA. (10) The parties disputed whether failure-to-report escape involved conduct that presented a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. (11) Although nine federal circuits held that escape based on failure-to-report for confinement was a "violent felony" or "crime of violence," (12) the Court held that it was not. (13) "[S]ometimes the choice is not obvious." (14)

    In this Note, Part I reviews the text and legislative history of the ACCA. Part II examines James and Begay and highlights the Justices' differing interpretations of the ACCA's definition of "violent felony." Applying these precedents, Part III analyzes the issue presented in Chambers and the Court's disposition.

  2. BACKGROUND.

    When drafting the bill that would become the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, legislators designed the bill to increase federal law enforcement participation in efforts to curb armed habitual career criminals. (15) When determining which career criminals the federal government should target, the Committee on the Judiciary focused on robberies and burglaries. (16) The Committee noted that robberies and burglaries were the most damaging crimes to society, occurred with far greater frequency than other violent felonies, affected many more people, and caused the greatest losses. (17) Considering robberies, the Committee found that approximately thirty percent resulted in physical injuries and approximately ninety percent resulted in significant financial loss. (18) The Committee stated that robberies and burglaries always inflicted psychological injury because "such crimes force people to live not in freedom, but in fear."(19)

    After hearing concerns about the appropriateness of prosecuting local robberies or burglaries under a federal statute, the Subcommittee on Crime accepted an amendment in the nature of a substitute. (20)The amendment prohibited convicted felons from possessing firearms and required showing an interstate commerce nexus to establish federal jurisdiction. (21) The amendment focused federal prosecutorial resources and more severe penalties on the most serious offenders in a locality who were apprehended while possessing firearms. (22) When the bill became law, the definition of "violent felony" included "robbery or burglary, or both." (23)

    In 1986, Congress amended the ACCA twice. (24) In the Career Criminals Amendment Act of 1986, legislators replaced the language "for robbery or burglary, or both" with "for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both." (25) Legislators also added a two-clause definition for "violent felony" that expanded the ACCA's predicate offenses. (26)

    The ACCA requires a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence when a felon is convicted for possessing a firearm, under 18 U.S.C. [section] 922(g), and has three prior convictions, by any court referenced under 18 U.S.C. [section] 922(g)(1), (27) for a violent felony or serious drug offense. (28) "Violent felony" is defined as any crime punishable by more than one year of imprisonment that: (1) "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or" (29) (2) "is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious risk of physical injury to another. (30) The courts continue to reinterpret the second clause's residual provision and produce different results with respect to whether an un-enumerated felony is violent within the meaning of the ACCA.

  3. PRIOR INTERPRETATIONS OF THE ACCA.

    1. James v. United States

      In James, the Court considered whether attempted burglary, as defined by Florida law, was a "violent felony" within the meaning of the ACCA. (31) In a five-to-four vote, (32) the Court held that attempted burglary constituted a "violent felony" under the ACCA's residual provision and affirmed the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (33)

      James initially argued that the statute's text and structure categorically excluded attempt offenses from the residual provision's scope. (34) The Court concluded that the plain language of the second clause, when read together with the rest of the statute, did not prohibit attempt offenses from qualifying when they involved conduct that presented a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. (35) Then James argued that Congress intended to categorically exclude attempt offenses from the second clause because the first clause expressly included attempts, while the second clause was silent. (36) The Court declined to read the second clause's residual provision so narrowly. (37)

      Invoking the statutory canon of ejusdem generis, (38) James argued that the residual provision should extend only to completed offenses because the second clause's enumerated crimes were all completed offenses. (39) The Court found that the enumerated crimes were not all completed offenses and used "use of explosives" as an example, where an unsuccessful attempt to blow up a building would qualify under the ACCA. (40) The Court also emphasized that the enumerated "offenses, while not technically crimes against the person, nevertheless created significant risks of bodily injury or confrontation that might result in bodily injury." (41)

      James argued that the ACCA's legislative history supported excluding attempt offenses from the second clause. (42) The Court responded by saying, "Whatever weight this legislative history might ordinarily have, we do not find it probative here." (43) Then the Court quickly summarized the 1986 amendments to the ACCA for the purpose of expanding the range of predicate offenses through a broadly worded residual provision. (44)

      Concluding that neither the statutory text nor the legislative history disclosed any congressional intent to exclude attempt offenses from the residual provision, the Court employed the "categorical approach" to determine whether attempted burglary fell within the ACCA's meaning. (45) Using this approach, the Court considered whether the elements of attempted burglary were of the type that would justify its inclusion within the residual provision, without inquiring into the specific conduct of James. (46) The Court compared the enumerated offense of burglary with attempted burglary and found that they shared the same main risk, the possibility of a face-to-face confrontation between the burglar and an occupant, police officer or bystander who investigates. (47) The Court stated that the main risk arose from the possibility that an innocent (48) person might appear while the crime was in progress.

      Next, the Court summarized the Courts of Appeals' holdings, noting the seven to three split in favor of construing attempted burglary as a "violent felony" under the residual provision. (49) The Court also discussed the United States Sentencing Commission's role, as a collector of detailed sentencing data on federal criminal cases, and its conclusion that "crimes of violence" included attempt offenses. (50) The Court viewed the Sentencing Commission's conclusion as evidence that attempted burglary and the completed offense posed similar risks of violence: (51)

      Citing the categorical approach, James argued that attempted burglary could not be an ACCA predicate offense unless all cases presented a risk of physical injury to others. (52) However, the Court responded that the "ACCA does not require metaphysi cal certainty." (53) Referencing definitions from two dictionaries, the Court stated that the words "potential risk" expressed congressional intent to "encompass possibilities even more contingent or remote than a simple 'risk,' much less a certainty." (54) Ultimately, the Court held that attempted burglary satisfied the residual provision's requirements because it was a type of offense that, by its nature, presented a serious potential risk of injury to another. (55)

      Justice Scalia's dissent, which Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg joined, criticized the majority's opinion for failing to provide concrete guidance to ensure that federal judges would apply the ACCA's residual provision with an "acceptable...

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