Washington Law Review

Comment

Driving Dangerously: Vehicle Flight and the Armed Career Criminal Act after Sykes v. United States

March 01, 2012 | 87 Wash. L. Rev. 281

Abstract:  The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a federal “three-strikes” recidivist statute, applies a mandatory enhancement to sentences of criminal defendants previously convicted of three qualifying predicate crimes. In Sykes v. United States the U.S. Supreme Court held that a conviction for fleeing police by car counted as a predicate under ACCA’s residual provision for crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” ACCA’s residual provision has produced a confusing series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, each applying a different method for determining its scope. Though Sykes borrows methods from each of these prior cases, this Comment argues that only the narrowest of its bases—a finding of risk based on the statutory features of the state crime—controlled its outcome. This basis suffices to explain Sykes’ outcome, and best comports with the Court’s own precedent mandating a categorical approach when interpreting ACCA. Under the categorical approach, a court may consider only the elements of a crime, not the particulars of its commission by an individual defendant, to determine whether it qualifies as a predicate offense under ACCA. Applying this interpretation of Sykes in future cases, only vehicle-flight convictions that either (1) require risk of physical injury to another as an element themselves or (2) share the same punishment as a comparable offense containing this element will qualify under ACCA’s residual provision. However, in Sykes’ wake most federal courts have read Sykes broadly, employing reasoning this Comment argues is inconsistent with faithful application of the categorical approach.

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