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State of Mind Matters — Another Deep Dive into State Court Prior Convictions

Rodney Vinson allowed police officers to search his house. The officers found a rifle and ammunition. We don’t know why the police were at his home or whether they were looking for guns or something else, but in keeping with a theme from United States v. McLeod, we again are interested in what happened in a state court years before the federal case.

Mr. Vinson had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense in North Carolina that the government contended was a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (MCDV). A conviction for an MCDV bars someone from possessing a firearm, but if the conviction is for a crime that is not an MCDV, as Mr. Vinson argued, he did not violate any federal laws by owning a rifle.

Mr. Vinson moved to dismiss his indictment on that ground and the District Court agreed. The government appealed and the Fourth Circuit initially reversed the lower court and remanded the case for further proceedings. Then, on a motion for rehearing, Mr. Vinson raised an issue he did not raise in his initial appeal.

That issue was, again calling back to McLeod, whether the categorial or modified categorial approach is the proper analytic framework for considering Mr. Vinson’s state court prior conviction.

Mr. Vinson argued the categorial approach was proper. Under that argument, since a MCDV requires “force or the threat of force” and the North Carolina statute in question does not, he could not have violated the federal gun law he was accussed of breaking.

The government argued that because the North Carolina law prohibited “assault, assault and battery, or an affray,” the modified categorical approach applied. Using that approach, reviewing the state court charging document was permitted. That document stated that Mr. Vinson had battered his wife, an action that made his prior conviction a MCDV.

The Fourth Circit, however, did not make a formal decision as to which apporach it should use because even under the modified categorical approach the government loses.

Under North Carolina law, a person can commit an assault simply by having a state of mind of “culpable negligence.” In other words, an unintentional, but negligent action is enough to sustain a conviction for assault in North Carolina. Under federal law, however, negligent conduct is not enough to satisfy an element of a crime that reqiures physical force – the action in question must be intentional.

The Fourth Circuit held that because the North Carolina prior conviction did not require an intentional act, a conviction for that offense could never be a federal crime of violence. Therefore, it affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the indictment.

Andrew Szekely is a Greenbelt-based criminal defense attorney with a practice specializing in federal criminal defense and serious state-court crimes in Maryland and the District of Columbia. He also maintains an active appellate, post-conviction, and habeas corpus practice. For more information, please see his website.