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March 2, 2021

En banc Second Circuit needs 120 pages and five opinions to sort out whether NY first-degree manslaughter qualifies as a federal "violent crime"

Great scottI generally do not closely follow lower federal court rulings about what state convictions qualify as predicates for sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") or the career offender sentencing guidelines. I have a hard time just keeping up with the many Supreme Court ACCA cases, and I have previously suggested in this post a few years ago that modern ACCA jurisprudence must reside as some level of hell in Dante's Inferno because this caselaw is so dang inscrutable. 

But a helpful reader alerted me to a new en banc Second Circuit decision today in US v. Scott, No. 18-163-cr (2d Cir. Mar. 2, 2021) (available here), which seems like a useful reminder of how nuts this jurisprudence can be.  Here is how the majority opinion in Scott gets started:

Defendant-appellee Gerald Scott is a violent criminal, who has repeatedly threatened, and on two occasions taken, human life.  The killings were undoubtedly brutal: Scott shot one of his victims in the head at point-blank range; he stabbed the other to death. For these killings, Scott stands twice convicted in New York State of first-degree manslaughter under N.Y. Penal Law § 125.20(1), a homicide crime second only to murder in its severity.   At issue on this appeal is whether Scott’s manslaughter convictions are for violent crimes. An affirmative answer might appear obvious to a man on the street aware of Scott’s conduct.  But the laws relevant here — the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), see 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), and the Career Offender Sentencing Guideline, see U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a) — do not identify violent crimes by looking to what a defendant actually did. Rather, they look to the minimum he might have done and still been convicted.  This inquiry focuses on a crime’s elements, asking whether they categorically require a defendant’s use of physical force, specifically violent physical force.  See Curtis Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 140, 144 (2010) (defining physical force required by ACCA).  Applying that standard here, we conclude that first-degree manslaughter is a categorically violent crime because its elements — (1) the causation of death (2) by a person intent on causing at least serious physical injury — necessarily involve the use of violent force.

The occasion for our ruling is the United States’ appeal from an amended judgment of conviction entered on January 12, 2018, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Laura Taylor Swain, Judge), which resentenced Scott to time served (then totaling approximately 11 years, 3 months) for attempted Hobbs Act robbery and related firearms crimes. Resentencing followed the district court’s grant of Scott’s 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his original 22-year sentence.  See United States v. Scott, No. 06 CR 988- LTS, 2017 WL 2414796, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 2, 2017).  The district court concluded that it had mistakenly relied on ACCA and the Career Offender Guideline in imposing Scott’s initial sentence.  It reasoned that Scott’s two prior convictions for first-degree manslaughter did not qualify as predicate violent crimes because “first degree manslaughter can be committed in New York State by omission and thus without using force.”  Id. at *2 (emphasis added).  A divided panel of this court agreed, with the majority analogizing omission to “complete inaction,” and concluding therefrom that the crime could be committed without the use of force.  See United States v. Scott, 954 F.3d 74, 78 (2d Cir. 2020) (holding first-degree manslaughter “not a predicate crime of violence because it can be committed by complete inaction and therefore without the use of force”).

After rehearing the case en banc, we reject this reasoning, which, carried to its logical — or illogical — conclusion, would preclude courts from recognizing even intentional murder as a categorically violent crime because, presumably, it is just as possible for a defendant to cause a person’s death by omission when the defendant’s specific intent is to kill, see N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(1) (second-degree murder), as when his specific intent is to cause serious physical injury, see id. § 125.20(1) (first-degree manslaughter).  We decline to take the law down a path leading so far from the violent reality of these two most serious, intentionally injurious homicide crimes.

Disconcertedly, the majority needed 50 more pages to explain why first-degree manslaughter in New York qualifies as a federal "violent crime," and then concurring and dissenting opinions needed 70 more pages to debate a formalistic legal matter that is an awful artifice of poorly conceived and constructed federal sentencing law.  With the rocky jurisprudence of this case and the horrors of so many others, I would love to time warp back to the drafting of ACCA and urge a whole new approach to federal sentencing.  

March 2, 2021 at 06:50 PM | Permalink

Comments

Yes, it would be far better to ditch the ACCA and instead increase reliance on criminal history. Perhaps a criminal history level could be worth two offense levels in the table, rather than one as it is currently.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Mar 2, 2021 10:39:17 PM

Armed Career Criminal Jurisprudence can lead to so many results that defy common sense on both ends of the sentencing spectrum -- extremely serious crimes like the two counts of first degree manslaughter this defendant has, and dramatic over-sentencing for crimes a simple as possession of a single bullet or shotgun shell (but no gun). I was incarcerated with many people serving ACCA sentences from 15 years to life. In my opinion, about 20% did not deserve the harsh ACCA sentences they received. One guy who did deserve his life sentence had already served 10 years in a Florida prison for murder before he was 30 years old. Upon release and while on parole, he acquired an SKS assault rifle and began robbing drug dealers. He was turned in a by roommate's dinner guest, to whom he had told his whole story and even shown the SKS assault rifle (don't you show your firearms to dinner guests?). The dinner guest was soon arrested for other crimes, for which he was facing a long sentence. The prosecutors asked him if he knew anything about any other serious crimes, and did he want to help himself? HE received a 5K Motion for giving them the guy with the SKS assault rifle. And that man deserves his life sentence; he is extremely violent and has no regard for the laws and rules of civilized society. But then there is the guy I met who got a 15 year ACCA sentence for "constructive possession" of a single shotgun shell in the door pocket of his father's pickup truck. 15 years doesn't make any sense to me.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Mar 3, 2021 8:57:26 AM

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