United States Supreme Court Limits Definition of “Violent Felony” under Federal Armed Career Criminal Act

The United States Supreme Court issued an opinion on Tuesday resolving a split in the circuits regarding whether failure to report for prison is a violent felony for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). This federal law provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years or up to life imprisonment for possession of a firearm by an individual with three previous convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses.

In the case decided this week, Deondery Chambers pleaded guilty to a charge of being a felon unlawfully in possession of a firearm. Chambers conceded that two of his prior convictions qualified under the ACCA, but disputed the third conviction, which was for failure to report to a penal institution. This conviction resulted from his failure to report to a local prison for weekend confinement on four occasions.

The District Court treated this conviction as a form of “escape from a penal institution” and held that it qualified as a violent felony. Mr. Chambers appealed from this decision, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court. The First Circuit has also held that failure to report is a violent felony, but the Ninth Circuit has held that such a crime does not qualify. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve this split in the circuits.

The statutory definition of “violent felony” in the ACCA includes crimes “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that also involve “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The Department of Justice argued that failure to report for prison is such conduct and that “a failure to report reveals the offender’s special, strong aversion to penal custody.” The Court was not convinced by this argument.

The Court stated that this type of crime, which “amounts to a form of inaction,” is a “far cry from the ‘purposeful,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘aggressive’ conduct potentially at issue” in the specific crimes enumerated as violent felonies in the ACCA. Addressing the District Court’s analogy of failure to report to escape, the Court said that the behavior underlying failure to report is less likely to involve risk of physical harm than the more aggressive behavior underlying escape. The Court reviewed a United States Sentencing Commission report that “strongly supports the intuitive belief that failure to report does not involve a serious potential risk of physical injury.”

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that failure to report falls outside the scope of the ACCA’s definition of “violent felony.”