As frequent readers of this blog know, the Armed Career Criminal Act gets a lot of appellate attention.
Simply put, if you’ve been previously convicted of a felony, and you’re found with a gun, that’s a federal crime. Normally, the most you can get for that crime is 10 years.
But, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, if you have three prior convictions for either a crime of violence or a drug distribution offense, then you face a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, and a maximum sentence of life.
That’s a big change.
As I’ve written about before (here from the Ninth Circuit, here from the Fourth Circuit, here from the Eighth Circuit, and in two places from the Sixth Circuit, here and here, to suggest a few places to look), what counts as a “crime of violence” is really miles away from clear.
In short, the Armed Career Criminal Act is a mess. What counts as a qualifying predicate offense is light years from clear. And it’s a mess that is causing thousands of additional years of prison time for people.
But don’t take my word on it; the New York Times recently had an editorial about how wrong the ACCA is.
The New York Times writes that,
Justice Antonin Scalia has called this federal statute unconstitutional because some of its language is so vague that it “permits, indeed invites, arbitrary enforcement.” In dissenting in a case last year, he wrote, “Many years of prison hinge on whether a crime falls within” the act.
The Eleventh Circuit addressed whether statutory rape counts as a “crime of violence” under the ACCA in United States v. Owens.
Statutory rape, basically, is the crime of having sex with someone who is too young to consent by law. In Alabama, the state law that matters in Owens, the age of consent is generally 16.
Mr. Owens was previously convicted, many times, for having sex with someone between the ages of 12 and 16 (we know the person was older than 12, because he was convicted of an offense with that age range – presumably having sex with someone younger than 12 has its own separate statutory section, and is punished more severely.
After picking up his statutory rape convictions, Mr. Owens was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
So, the question is – is statutory rape a crime of violence?
Initially, the Eleventh Circuit said yes. The court of appeals held that statutory rape involves the use of force on the person of another. Here’s how the court summarized its conclusion from the prior opinion:
We explained that “the plain meaning of ‘physical force’ is power, violence, or pressure directed against a person consisting in a physical act.” In interpreting the term “physical force” . . . , we noted that “a person cannot engage in nonconsensual sexual penetration with another without exerting some level of physical force.” Because under Alabama law second-degree rape is sexual intercourse with a person incapable of consenting to the act, we concluded “that a second degree rape conviction under Alabama law must involve the use of physical force against the person of another.”
There’s a tidy bit of equivocation on the word “consent” between the second sentence and the third – a fifteen-year old can “consent” in the sense of the second sentence in a way that he can’t in the third – but you get the court’s idea.
Then the Supreme Court decided Johnson v. United States. As the Eleventh Circuit described the Court’s reasoning in Johnson:
The Court reasoned that because “context determines meaning,” the phrase “physical force” as used in the statutory definition of violent felony “means violent force – that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” The word “violent” connotes “a substantial degree of force,” and the implication of “strong physical force” is made even more pellucid by its attachment to the word “felony.” “[T]he term ‘physical force’ itself normally connotes force strong enough to constitute ‘power’-and all the more so when it is contained in a definition of ‘violent felony.'” Thus, the Court concluded that battery under Florida law did not satisfy the definition of “violent felony”
So, for something to be a crime of violence, it necessarily, after Johnson, has to include violence.
In light of Johnson, the Eleventh Circuit’s prior holding in Owens was remanded and the Eleventh Circuit considered it again.
On remand, the Eleventh Circuit changed course.
For this court to uphold Owens’s sentence, we would have to conclude [statutory rape] “inherently poses a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” and consequently “qualifies as a crime of violence[“] comports with the Johnson Court’s definition of “violent felony” under the ACCA. We would be intellectually dishonest if we decided that in the affirmative.
The court of appeals noted that to secure a conviction for statutory rape
the government need only show that the offender is 16 years old or older and engaged in sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex who is between the ages of 12 and 16, without legal capacity to consent. See Ala. Code § 13A-6-62. The government is not required to show forcible compulsion
Since violence isn’t required for statutory rape to be committed, statutory rape is not a crime of violence.
Mr. Owens is going back for resentencing.