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Running From A Courtroom And The Armed Career Criminal Act

The Armed Career Criminal Act creates more absurd law than any part of the American legal system outside of the tax code.

The Sixth Circuit’s recent, and short, opinion in United States v. Oaks illustrates the point. It asks the question we’ve never needed answering before – is running out of a courtroom a violent act?

It turns out that it isn’t.

920501_shoe-string_sands.jpgBackground on the Armed Career Criminal Act

If you are caught with a gun and you have a prior felony conviction, the most amount of time you can be sentenced to spend in prison is 10 years and, odds are, your sentencing guidelines range would be much lower.

If, however, you have been previously convicted of a felony crime of violence or a drug distribution offense three times in your past, then your mandatory minimum sentence is 15 years. And your statutory maximum sentence is life.

Mr. Oaks

Mr. Oaks pled guilty to possessing a firearm after a felony conviction. [FN1] He had two prior convictions for either drug distribution offenses or crimes of violence. He also had a prior conviction for felony escape.

Mr. Oaks felony escape conviction arose out of his escape from a courtroom where he was awaiting a hearing on robbery and burglary charges.

The district court determined that this escape conviction was a crime of violence.

Mr. Oaks appealed.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Mr. Oaks filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court and Mr. Oaks

The Supreme Court GVR’d – it granted cert, vacated the Sixth Circuit’s judgment, and remanded to the Sixth Circuit in light of Chambers v. United States. (see SCOTUSBlog coverage here)

Chambers dealt with whether escape which arises out of a failure to report is a violent felony.

It’s a little astounding that this is even a question – the actual thing that a defendant does can be as passive as sitting on his couch watching TV and eating potato chips while he’s supposed to be elsewhere. Aside from the violence to his own cholesterol level, this does not seem to be a violent act.

Happily, a unanimous Supreme Court held that failure to report is not a crime of violence for Armed Career Criminal Act purposes. In reaching that conclusion, the Court looked at a United States Sentencing Commission report on failure to report crimes, and noted that in 160 cases, not once did a failure to report lead to a fight with law enforcement.

And they say watching TV is bad for you.

After The Supreme Court’s Remand

In light of the Supreme Court’s remand in Mr. Oaks’s case, the Sixth Circuit remanded to the district court for more fact-finding about what the details of the felony escape were to determine if it was really a crime of violence.

The district court found that,

first, it appears from the uncontroverted facts that at the time of the felony escape, Oaks was being held in law enforcement custody in the county jail on felony charges of evading arrest, felony reckless endangerment, attempted aggravated robbery, theft over $500.00 and aggravated burglary, but had been taken to a courtroom for a court appearance at the time he ran from the courtroom; secondly, while the county jail was a secure facility, the courtroom from which Oaks ran was not.

Based on this, the Sixth Circuit determined that escape from a courthouse is not a crime of violence.

Looking at the same Sentencing Commission report, the Sixth Circuit noted that in 171 cases of escape from “nonsecure custody” only 1.7% resulted in some kind of injury. That percentage, the Sixth Circuit found, is simply too low to call this a violent offense.

Interestingly, there’s a dissent, which questions whether a courtroom is really an escape from nonsecure custody, or, rather, is an escape from the custody of law enforcement personnel. If so, the percentages are a little violenter.[FN2] I would suspect that the United States Marshals Service would also question the majority’s determination that escape from a courtroom is not escape from law enforcement custody.

That said, it’s a happy result for Mr. Oaks.

[FN1] – Actually, what the opinion says, quoting a prior Sixth Circuit opinion in this case, is that he “pleaded” guilty. Gentle readers, I find that word awkward. In my legal writing, I am too often called upon to use the past tense of plead in connection with a determination of a person’s guilt. I prefer to use “pled” rather than “pleaded.” The Sixth Circuit disagrees. Am I wrong? Has Bryan Garner opined on this?

[FN2] Please don’t tell Bryan Garner I made up the word “violenter.”