Eleventh Circuit Holds “Walkaway” Escape is Not a Violent Felony under Federal Armed Career Criminal Act

Earlier this year, we discussed the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Chambers v. U.S. in this post. In that case, the Court held that a conviction for failure to report to a penal institution falls outside the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act’s definition of “violent felony.” In light of that decision, the Eleventh Circuit held today in U.S. v. Lee that non-violent walkaway escapes from unsecured custody also do not qualify as “violent felonies” under the ACCA. This decision is a reversal of prior Eleventh Circuit law holding that all escapes are violent felonies for the purposes of the ACCA.

Shawntrail Lee was convicted of felony possession of a firearm in the Southern District of Georgia. He had three prior convictions: eluding police officers in the second degree, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and escape based upon leaving a halfway house. The district court granted Lee a downward variance and sentenced him to the mandatory minimum 180 months (15 years) required by the ACCA.

Conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm ordinarily carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. The ACCA increases that minimum to 15 years where the defendant has three prior “violent felony” or serious drug convictions.

The law regarding “violent felonies” has been in a state of flux. Before last year, any crime that posed a serious risk of harm qualified as a violent felony under the ACCA. The Eleventh Circuit held in U.S. v. Taylor that, because even peaceful walkaway escapes always posed a serious risk of injury, failure to return to a halfway house was a violent felony under the ACCA. Every circuit but the Ninth held that all escapes were violent felonies. In 2008 in Begay v. U.S., however, the Supreme Court held that to be a violent felony, the crime must be “roughly similar, in kind as well as degree of risk posed, to the examples” enumerated in the statute: burglary, arson, extortion, or the use of explosives. Then in Chambers, the Court held that failure to report to a penal institution does not fall within the ACCA, rejecting the “notion that all escapes are created equal.”

Today the Eleventh Circuit vacated Mr. Lee’s sentence and remanded it for resentencing. Shortly after Chambers was decided, the Supreme Court vacated Mr. Taylor’s sentence. Following a letter brief from the government that it no longer sought the ACCA enhancement, the Eleventh Circuit remanded his case for resentencing without the ACCA enhancement, as well.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Lee is available here.