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Court limits “violent felony” definition

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the crime of failure to report to jail or prison to serve a sentence is not the same as an escape, and is not a “violent felony” that can lead to a longer prison term under federal law.  The ruling in Chambers v. U.S. (06-1120) was unanimous, but two Justices joined the result only, not the reasoning.  The decision clears up a conflict among the federal circuit courts, and rejects a Justice Department argument that an “aversion to penal custody” should always be treated as if it were an escape.

That was one of two rulings the Court issued on returning from a four-week holiday and year-end recess.  In the second, Jiminez v. Quarterman (07-6984), a unanimous Court decided that, if a state prisoner is allowed by a state court to file an appeal that ordinarily would be too late, that will delay the start of the one-year filing period for pursuing a habeas challenge until after the state appeal is resolved.  Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, declaring that a state conviction is not final for federal habeas purposes when a state has allowed an out-of-time, direct appeal of the conviction.  The ruling camed in a case involving a Texas inmate, Carlos Jimenez, who is serving a 43-year prison term for burglarizing a home, with the sentence enhanced because of a prison conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In the separate ruling in the Chambers case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that a “failure to report” crime does not satisfy the definition in federal law for a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Under that law, a minimum prison term of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison is the penalty imposed on someone convicted of having a gun illegally, if the individual has three prior convictions for “a violent felony or a serious drug offense.”

The Justice Department had argued, Breyer noted, “that a failure to report reveals the offender’s special, strong aversion to penal custody.”  But, the Justice said, “the offender’s aversion to penal custody, even if special, is beside the point.  The question is whether such an offender is significantly more likely than others” to engage in activity threatening “serious potential risk of physical injury.”

Breyer added that, “while an offender who fails to report must of course be doing something at the relevant time, there is no reason to believe that the something poses a serious potential risk of physical injury…To the contrary, an individual who fails to report would seem unlikely, not likely, to call attention to his whereabouts by simultaneously engaging in additional violent and unlawful conduct.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., joined by Justice Thomas, wrote separately in support of the result only.

The case involved Deondery Lazar Chambers II, who lived in a rural county in southern Illinois.  He was charged with being a felon who possessed a gun.  He had previously been convicted of robbery and aggravated battery, of escape, and delivering drugs near a public housing project.

Under Illinois law, an escape is defined to include breaking free from prison or from a police officer, but it also includes failing to report to jail or prison for confinement. It was the latter offense in Chambers case, because he had failed earlier to show up on some of the weekends that he had been sentenced to temporary jailing.

After he pleaded guilty to the gun possession count, his sentence was enhanced and he was given a prison term of 188 months, with the failure-to-report conviction one of the alleged violent felonies in his past.