The law, which was adopted by Congress in 1984, mandates that gun-toting criminals with three violent felonies are subject to a 15-year prison sentence. However, the law is vague, and with the exception of burglary, arson, and extortion, the law fails to detail the crimes that it refers to.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia described the law as ''fuzzy-leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts'' legislation attractive to the congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nitty-gritty.
The issue, which was brought before the high court by Marcus Sykes, who sought to appeal his 15-year prison sentence for two robberies, gun possession, and vehicular flight, marks the fourth time that the court has been asked to define what constitutes a violent felony, under federal law.
Sykes, an Indiana resident who pleaded guilty to the charges of armed robbery and resisting law enforcement through an attempt to flee in a vehicle, argued that the chase was not violent. According to prosecutors, Sykes took police officers on a chase in 2002 in Lawrence, Indiana after they attempted to pull him over for driving without headlights. According to Indiana state law, vehicular flight is a felony.
Prosecutors stated that during the chase, Sykes was driving on the wrong side of the road as well as driving through yards before crashing into the side of a house. He then attempted to escape on foot but was tracked by a police dog.
The majority, which included a mix of liberal and conservative justices, ruled that any attempt at vehicular flight has the potential to lead to the physical injury of another.
Chief Justice John Roberts
, and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., and Sonia Sotomayor were all within the majority, while Justices Antonin Scalia, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Kagan, who was joined in her dissent by Ginsburg, argued that the court should have based its decision on Indiana's state regulations rather than attempting to determine the federal law's intended definition of a violent felony. She went on to note that Sykes was convicted only of simple vehicular flight and therefore was not guilty of a violent felony.
However, Kennedy said that the ''risk of violence is inherent to vehicle flight. It is well known that when offenders use motor vehicles as their means of escape, they create serious potential risks of physical injury to others. Flight from a law enforcement officer invites, even demands, pursuit.'' He further noted that for every 100 vehicle chases that occur, four officers of the law or spectators are injured, whereas for every 100 burglaries, there are only 3.2 injuries.
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