Monday, July 10, 2006

Crime of Violence under ACCA

United States v. Presse D. Matthews, No. 05-1665 (July 7, 2006): Mr. Matthews was sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The government relied on an Illinois conviction for possession of a weapon by a felon. In the state case he had pleaded guilty to carrying a "dangerous knife," with the intent to use it unlawfully against another.

ACCA has two branches: (1) crimes in which an element of the offense is use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force; or (2) certain enumerated crimes, as well as crimes that present "a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

Mr. Matthews argued that intended use was not the same as use, attempted use, or threatened use. The Court expressed relief that it could avoid deciding whether the conviction fell under the first branch. Instead, it concluded that the conviction satisfied the second branch.

Matthews argued that a person could have the intent to use a knife to harm another, but might not necessarily carry out the intent or even come close to carrying out the intent. The Court responded that the test is probability, not certainty, of injury. In its view, one who has the intent of using a knife always presents a serious risk of potential physical injury to another.

In rejecting hypothetical scenarios not involving violence, the Court seemed to say that as long as there is a hypothetical scenario that does involve violence, then the offense is categorically a crime of violence. Notice that the inquiry does not focus on the facts of the particular conviction; rather, the Court asks whether it can imagine a situation in which the prohibited conduct has potential for violence. In elaborating on this approach, the Court has demonstrated that it has a fairly active imagination and can deftly conjure up a hypothetical scenario involving violence.

Matthews’ state conviction was under a section that requires bad intent as well as possession of the prohibited item. The bad intent seemed to tip the scales. Another section of the Illinois statute prohibits felons from carrying guns and makes no requirement of bad intent. It remains to be seen whether a conviction under this section can become a predicate conviction under ACCA. Even though the felon has no intent to use the gun against anyone, is there still enough potential for violence that it becomes a violent felony under federal law? Although felons might carry guns because they are on their way to a shooting range or a day of hunting, they might carry them because they are on their way to a robbery. Is the latter hypothetical enough to expose a defendant to ACCA?

One interesting sidenote: the government conceded error. But the Court invited the Attorney General of Illinois to file an amicus brief on the issues of Illinois law involved.