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September 7, 2018

US House passes broad rewrite of the federal definition of "crime of violence" without any hearings

While a number of seemingly popular federal sentencing reform bills and marijuana reform bills have waited years for a vote in one or another chamber of Congress, the "Community Safety and Security Act of 2018," H.R. 6691, was passed through the US House of Representatives this morning barely a week after its introduction.  This new Reason piece provides some details under a full headline that captures the essentials: "House Passes Bill to Reclassify Dozens of Offenses as 'Crimes of Violence': Opponents say the bill, rushed to the floor without a hearing, would dangerously expand what's considered an 'aggravated offense'":

Republicans in the House passed a bill this morning that would reclassify dozens of federal crimes as "crimes of violence," making them deportable offenses under immigration law. Criminal justice advocacy groups say the bill, rushed to the floor without a single hearing, is unnecessary, is overbroad, and will intensify the problem of overcriminalization.

The Community Safety and Security Act of 2018, H.R. 6691, passed the House by a largely party-line vote of 247–152. Among the crimes that it would make violent offenses are burglary, fleeing, and coercion through fraud.

"Groups on the right and the left are deeply concerned about the bad policy in this bill and the unfair process through which it came to the floor," Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a statement to Reason. "At a time when we have bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms that will safely reduce incarceration and better prioritize public safety, passing a bill that does just the opposite makes no sense at all."

In April, the Supreme Court ruled in Sessions v. Dimaya that the definition of a "crime of violence" used for federal immigration law — conviction under which can lead to deportation proceedings — was unconstitutionally vague. House Republicans crafted the bill, they say, in response to the Supreme Court's recommendations in that case. But the criminal justice reform advocacy group FAMM warned that the bill "would label seemingly nonviolent offenses such as burglary of an unoccupied home and fleeing as violent offenses."...

The bill was also opposed by the House Liberty Caucus, which released a statement saying that the legislation "expands unconstitutional federal crimes and provides grossly disproportionate consequences for nonviolent offenses."...

Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) claims the bill is urgently needed to keep, as its name suggests, communities safe from violent crime.  "We don't have the privilege to squabble over hypotheticals that have no bearing on the application of this law," Handel said on the House floor.  "I can assure my colleagues this bill is not overly broad. It's not a dangerous overexpansion. Instead, it's a carefully crafted response to the Supreme Court's recommendations."

Democrats and criminal justice groups also objected to the speed at which the bill sailed to the House floor.  It was introduced just a week ago and did not have a single hearing or markup prior to today's vote. The House Liberty Caucus calls the process "farcical."

In a tweet, Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs at the libertarian-leaning group FreedomWorks, writes: "In my view, this bill is mostly politics.  I agree that Dimaya requires a fix, but this bill has flaws that could have, and should have, been worked out in committee markup.  It's shameful that this bill was handled this way."

Especially because the definition of "crime of violence" under federal law matters in lots of arenas beyond immigration, I am hopeful that the Senate will take a more careful and deliberative approach to this issue than has the House. I am also amazed at how quickly complicate legislation can be moved through part of the legislative process when there is a political will to do so (even when it is unclear whose political will is in operation).

September 7, 2018 at 06:28 PM | Permalink


Here we go again. Politicians bulldozing crap thru to highly elevate sentencing for all.

both career & Acca will hit lots of people.

Where us the mens rea, criminal intent for violence with fraud. Fleeing, flaky, burgaly, certainly could be. Your a nasry, but if nobody is home or its their shed 100 yards away.

Come on.....A 5th grader could do better than this. Sorry, I forgot, its only the Feds.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 7, 2018 9:41:48 PM

What's happening there 0.o

Posted by: Stella | Sep 8, 2018 7:22:19 AM

I have been bitching for years that the term "crime of violence" in the criminal is vague, incomprehensible, and so unconstitutional. Sooner or later the courts are going to confront this fact.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 8, 2018 9:46:07 AM


As long as it is a term of art (which making it a long list of enumerated offenses would accomplish) it doesn't matter what a typical use of the words would be. The legislature is free to redefine 'bachelor' for the purposes of some statute to mean married midgets under 4'3".

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 8, 2018 11:54:02 PM

"“(2) that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another"

How do you use physical force against property? Sure you can use force to take property from someone, but that's not what it says.

Posted by: justme | Sep 9, 2018 11:15:06 AM


Yes, that is the normal response but I don't buy it anymore. Let me argue by analogy. Most rules require public notice, think the Federal Register. But there is an old joke that goes public notice means in the basement of the courthouse, the door guarded by lions, in a locked file cabinet, in folder with poison on it. The point of this joke is that at some point on the chain of causation "public notice" becomes so attenuated from its ordinary meaning, from the cultural expectations that arise when one hears the phrase, that it cannot inspire the loyalty of sane and rational individuals. The phrase "term of art" cannot in itself become a "term of art" for "caret blanche".

In short, I don't believe that a legislature can define the term "crime of violence" however it wants. Which isn't to say that the legislature cannot outlaw the underlying behavior; it can. It just cannot invent its own dictionary to mean whatever is clever.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 9, 2018 1:56:33 PM

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