Friday, May 15, 2009

The Next SCOTUS ACCA Case? Fives Hold TX Fleeing-By-Vehicle Is ACCA Violent Felony, Deepening Circuit Split On Issue

United States v. Harrimon, No. 08-10690 (5th Cir. May 14, 2009) (Jones, Wiener, Benavides)

James, Begay, Chambers, Johnson, . . . Harrimon? Looks like we got us a convoy, as Harrimon contributes to yet another circuit split over whether a particular offense falls within the Armed Career Criminal Act's "violent felony" definition.

The felony offense in question: evading arrest or detention by use of a vehicle ("fleeing by vehicle" to its friends), in violation of Texas Penal Code § 38.04(a). The elements: "'(1) a person, (2) intentionally flees, (3) from a peace officer, (4) with knowledge he or she is a peace officer, (5) the peace officer is attempting to arrest or detain the person, (6) the attempted arrest or detention is lawful, and (7) the person uses a vehicle while . . . in flight.'"

The Government conceded that the offense lacks a force element; that it isn't burglary, arson, or extortion; and that it doesn't necessarily involve the use of explosives. Leaving the question: "whether it 'otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another' under the 'residual' provision of clause (ii) of § 924(e)(2)(B)." Per Begay and Chambers, that's actually a two-part question that asks whether the offense in question is roughly similar to the enumerated violent felonies—burglary, arson, and extortion—"both (1) in kind [meaning purposeful, violent, and aggressive], and (2) in degree of risk posed (which must be at least a serious potential risk of physical injury to another)." Harrimon answers "yes" on both counts.

As for the in-kind similarity, the court
conclude[d] that fleeing by vehicle is purposeful, violent, and aggressive. First, it is purposeful: unlike the DUI statute at issue in Begay, fleeing by vehicle requires intentional conduct. Further, it is aggressive. “As commonly understood, aggressive behavior is offensive and forceful and characterized by initiating hostilities or attacks.” Fleeing by vehicle requires disregarding an officer’s lawful order, which is a clear challenge to the officer’s authority and typically initiates pursuit. This active defiance of an attempted stop or arrest is similar to the behavior underlying an escape from custody, which, as the Supreme Court noted in Chambers, is “less passive” and “more aggressive” than that likely underlying failure to report. Fleeing by vehicle is also violent: the use of a vehicle, usually a car, to evade arrest or detention typically involves violent force which the arresting officer must in some way overcome. As the Seventh Circuit observed in Spells, not only the arresting officer or officers, but also pedestrians and other motorists are subject to this force. Further, fleeing by vehicle “will typically lead to a confrontation with the officer being disobeyed,” a confrontation fraught with risk of violence.

(cites fled). As the court notes, this analysis is in line with that of the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits, but contrary to an Eleventh Circuit decision—United States v. Harrison—involving a Florida statute similar to Texas's. Harrison "held that 'disobeying a police officer’s signal and continuing to drive on, without high speed or reckless conduct, is not sufficiently aggressive and violent enough to be like the enumerated ACCA crimes,' and that '[i]t is not the deliberate kind of behavior associated with violent criminal use of firearms.'" Harrimon declined to follow Harrison's lead, because "[t]o our minds, an offender’s willingness to use a vehicle to flout an officer’s lawful order to stop shows 'an increased likelihood' that the offender would, if armed and faced with capture, 'deliberately point the gun and pull the trigger.'" (quoting Begay)

Which brings us to the risk question. Noting James's proviso “that [not] every conceivable factual offense covered by a statute must necessarily present a serious potential risk of injury before the offense can be deemed a violent felony[,]" the court

ha[d] no difficulty concluding that, in the ordinary case, fleeing by vehicle poses a serious risk of injury to others. While Harrimon argues that fleeing by vehicle does not become dangerous until law enforcement interrupts the perpetrator, fleeing by vehicle, by definition, can only occur after an initial attempt by an officer to arrest or detain the perpetrator. “This disobedience poses the threat of a direct confrontation between the police officer and the occupants of the vehicle, which, in turn, creates a potential for serious physical injury to the officer, other occupants of the vehicle, and even bystanders.”

Moreover, while it is possible, as Harrimon argues, to be guilty of fleeing by vehicle despite obeying all traffic laws and later surrendering quietly, we think that, in the typical case, an offender fleeing from an attempted stop or arrest will not hesitate to endanger others to make good his or her escape. [citing James and the Tenth Circuit]

(some more cites fled). But wait, there's also data. The court cites a DOJ-funded study that found an incidence of .04 injuries per police pursuit. Which should weigh against a holding that flight-by-vehicle presents a serious potential risk of physical injury, right? Wrong. The court also cites a study by the U.S. Fire Administration finding that there are "roughly .009 injuries per arson." Thus, according to the court, the risk of injury presented by flight-by-vehicle is roughly similar to that presented by arson.

Assuming the court's understanding and use of those studies is correct—and I'm no statistician; haven't even played one on TV—then isn't the court effectively saying that by "serious potential risk of physical injury" Congress meant "even a vanishingly small risk of physical injury?" After all, .04 injuries-per-chase is practially zero, and that's an order of magnitude greater than the .009 injuries-per-arson. And if that's true, then there's really only one question to answer under the Begay/Chambers analysis isn't there? Because an offense is similar in kind to burglary, arson, or extortion—that is, a purposeful, violent, and aggressive offense—will always present a risk of injury at least as great as the virtually zero risk of injury posed by arson, won't it?

I suppose we'll just have to see how things play out in light of Harrimon. It'll also be interesting to see whether this case winds up as the next chapter in the Supreme Court's repeated efforts to explain how to apply the residual clause, a distinct possibility given the circuit split. (I'd like to see a cert grant if for no other reason than the "Who's-on-first?" comedy sure to arise at oral argument from having Harrison and Harrimon on opposite sides of the split.)

Finally, what effect will Harrimon have on the Fifth Circuit's upcoming revisitation of the UUV-as-aggravated-felony issue? Recall that the Supreme Court remanded three cases presenting that issue for reconsideration in light of Chambers, that the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Texas has taken the position in those cases that UUV is not an aggravated felony in light of Begay and Chambers, and that the Solicitor General has asked for a GVR in yet another case in light of that concession. Note also that Harrimon's similar-in-kind analysis is a lot like the reasoning underlying the Fifth Circuit's holdings in the UUV cases. Then again, the issue in those cases is whether UUV presents a substantial risk that force will be used, as opposed to a serious potential risk that injury will occur. Apples and oranges, or two peas in a pod? When it comes to waiting for the answer, you'll pay for the whole seat, but you'll only need the edge.

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