Begay v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Earthquake Park

DOCKET NO.: 06-11543
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 553 US 137 (2008)
GRANTED: Sep 25, 2007
ARGUED: Jan 15, 2008
DECIDED: Apr 16, 2008

Leondra R. Kruger - on behalf of the Respondent
Margaret A. Katze - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

In 2004, New Mexico resident Larry Begay was arrested after brandishing and unsuccessfully shooting a rifle while begging his sister for money. Begay pleaded guilty to possessing the rifle. Prior to the firearm arrest, Begay had been convicted twelve times of driving while intoxicated. Under New Mexico law, each DWI conviction after the first three were considered felonies. The court concluded that the DWI convictions were violent felonies, triggering the federal career criminal law's 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. A deeply divided court of appeals panel affirmed the decision to treat the DWIs as violent felonies.


Does driving while intoxicated qualify as a violent felony for purposes of the federal career criminal law?

Media for Begay v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 15, 2008 in Begay v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 16, 2008 in Begay v. United States

Stephen G. Breyer:

There is an act called the Armed Career Criminal Act which involves a person who has been convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm, a gun with -- because he has previously been a felon.

But the Act says, convicted of that, if a person is convicted of that and has three earlier convictions for a certain drug crimes or violent felonies, then there's a special mandatory minimum prison term of 15 years.

And the question here is we look at the definition of those prior convictions and we say he's driving under the influence of alcohol, one of those crimes that triggers the special 15-year sentence.

Now the ones that trigger the 15-year sentence, they a have to have a prison term themselves of more than a year.

Well, driving under the influence has that kind of prison term attached to it.

It also has to have either as an element, the use of force against somebody, while driving under the influence doesn't have that.

Or, it has to satisfy a certain special definition in a kind of property type provision, and that's what's at issue here.

Does it or does it not fall within that special definition?

Well, what is that definition?

The crimes that satisfy those definitions, and crime satisfies that if the crime “is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves the use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

Well, driving under the influence is a dangerous crime, and it does risk a serious harm to another so we assume it presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

But still, that provision lists four examples, namely burglary, arson, extortion, and explosives.

And we conclude that driving under the influence of alcohol is so different from those examples, that Congress did not intend this statute to apply to driving under the influence.

Now how is it different?

Well, the listed crimes typically involve purposeful, violent, and aggressive conduct, but the drunk-driving statutes normally do not insist on purposeful, violent, and aggressive conduct and so they are comparable to, or nearly comparable to crimes that impose strict liability which criminalize conduct in respect to which the offender need not have had a criminal intent.

Now, when we look at the Act's basic purpose, we think that difference which sounds a little technical matters.

The Act's title says, think of it, the Armed Career Criminal Act and we used to think it focuses upon a special danger created when a particular type of offender, a violent criminal, or a drug trafficker possesses a gun.

For example, the special danger that such a person, if he possesses a gun might deliberately point the gun and pull the trigger.

A history of burglary, arson, extortion, and explosives doe tend to show that the offender is that kind of person.

But a history of drunken driving while it certainly could indicate the person is a person of very serious, even unforgivable carelessness does not tend to show that he is that kind of person, a person who poses that kind, a special gun-related arm career criminal risk.

So Congress, we think did not intend to impose a 15-year mandatory prison term in that kind of instance.

For these reasons and for others set forth in our opinion, we conclude that the crime of driving under the influence of alcohol falls outside the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Acts violent felony definition.

The 15-year special term does not apply and we reverse the contrary conclusion of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion which Justices Thomas and Souter have joined.