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Opinion Recap: Chambers v. United States

Stanford student John Dalton discusses yesterday’s decision in Chambers v. United States (06-11206).

Justice Breyer delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court holding that “failure to report” escape is not a violent felony under the ACCA.

The Court begins by pointing out that under the ACCA the focus is not on whether the specific crime at issue was violent, but instead, looking more broadly to determine whether that type of crime generally involves violent conduct.  The Court emphasized, citing Shepard v. United States, that even within one category of crime under a statute, such as burglary, the type of burglary (whether it is breaking into a building or a car) can determine whether the crime is considered violent.  The Court then described how the Illinois statute at issue in this case involved the same sort of categorization.

Under the Illinois statute, many different forms of escape are described but only in “a single numbered statutory section.”  The issue, therefore, according to the Court, is whether failure to report may be deemed a separate offense for purposes of the ACCA.  The Court concluded that failure to report is a separate crime from typical escape from custody, and that “[t]he behavior  . . . underl[ying] a failure to report would seem less likely to involve a risk of physical harm than the less passive, more aggressive behavior underlying an escape from custody.”  In making this determination that failure to report is separate from escape, the Court relied not only on the fact that it is broken out separately, but also on the Illinois code’s placement of these crimes in two different felony classes, which is determined by seriousness of the crime.  The Court then noted that all of the different varieties of failure to report crimes were effectively the same and grouped them together, so that the Illinois statute only contained two types of crimes, failure to report and escape from custody.

After categorizing the types of crimes in the Illinois statute, the Court then turned to the more pointed question of whether failure to report was a violent felony under the ACCA.  The Court held that while failure to report was clearly a crime punishable by more than one year, failure to report did not “satisf[y]” any of the other statutory requirements of the violent felony definition.  The Court noted the obvious points that the elements of the crime didn’t involve physical force and that it was not one of the enumerated crimes.  The Court went on to say “[a]nd, more critically . . . it does not ‘involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.’”

The Court emphasized that failure to report is a crime of inaction and is “a far cry from the ‘purposeful, violent, and aggressive conduct’ potentially at issue when an offender uses explosives against property, commits arson, burgles a dwelling or residence, or engages in certain forms of extortion.”  The Court then considered and rejected the Government’s argument that failure to report showed a “strong aversion to penal custody.”  The Court noted that such aversion is irrelevant as the true question is whether such an individual is more likely than others to have a violent encounter with the police.  The Court then relies on the Sentencing Commission’s report to dispel the claim that violence is more likely in failure-to-report cases.  The Court pointed out that the report details 160 failure-to-report cases over a two-year period, none of which involved violence either when the crime was committed or when the individuals were captured.  Therefore, the report proves that indeed no serious potential risk of injury is present in these cases.  The Court distinguished the three cases cited by the Government (showing that violence had occurred in failure-to-report cases) as showing that in only those three documented cases was violence present and so the chances of violence occurring were very small.

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Thomas.   In Justice Alito’s view, neither the approach taken by the majority in this case nor that of Begay can be squared with the statutory text, but the result was dictated by stare decisis.  He wrote separately to ask Congress to redraft the ACCA to fix “the mire” created under the current draft of the residual clause.  The Court’s adoption in Taylor of a categorical, rather than case-by-case, approach has led to innumerable problems and inconsistent application for twenty years.  Thus, Congress should create a detailed and enumerated list of every crime that falls within the scope of the ACCA.