RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Jefferson County
DOCKET NO.: 06-11206
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
CITATION: 555 US (2009)
GRANTED: Apr 21, 2008
ARGUED: Nov 10, 2008
DECIDED: Jan 13, 2009
Matthew D. Roberts - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Robert N. Hochman - argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Deondery Chambers pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in an Illinois federal court. After finding that Chambers had committed three previous crimes of violence, the judge sentenced him to 188 months in prison. The judge based his sentencing decision on the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) which defines a crime of violence as any crime posing a serious risk of potential injury to another and imposes a sentencing hike on a defendant with three such convictions on his record. On appeal, Chambers argued that one of the prior convictions, for felonious escape under Illinois law, should not qualify as a crime of violence under the ACCA.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit refused to grant Chambers relief. Finding that Chambers had "knowingly fail[ed] to report to a penal institution" on several occasions, the equivalent of an actual escape under Illinois law, the court affirmed his sentence. Although the court determined that its precedents compelled such a ruling, the opinion indicated that more research would be needed to determine the desirability of classifying all escapes and failures to report as crimes of violence. For the time being, however, the court perpetuated Illinois' rule that felonious escape of any kind qualifies as a crime of violence for the purposes of the ACCA.
Does a conviction for felonious escape under Illinois law, arising from the defendant's failure to report for imprisonment, qualify as a "crime of violence" for the purposes of the federal Armed Career Criminals Act?
Media for Chambers v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 10, 2008 in Chambers v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 13, 2009 in Chambers v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Breyer has the opinion of the Court today in case 06-11206, Chambers versus United States.
Stephen G. Breyer:
Deondery Chambers, who was the petitioner in this case, was convicted of a -- of a gun crime being a felon in possession of a gun illegally to a federal crime and there's an Act called the Armed Career Criminal Act which says that a person who is convicted of that, if he has three prior convictions for certain drug crimes or violent felonies, will get a mandatory minimum of 15 years sentence.
Now, the question here is you look back at the three prior convictions, so he has several prior convictions, and this case turns on whether one of those prior convictions which is contested as to whether it's a violent felony.
Is it a violent felony or isn't it a violent felony?
And the particular conviction in question is in fact has to do with his punishment for another conviction, so he has a quite a few convictions.
But this particular time, he's convicted of a state crime and he was sentence to weekends in prison and he didn't show up for four of the weekends and so they convicted him of that, of failing to report for prison.
And the question is, is that crime, a failing to report for prison, a violent felony within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act?
But there are several definitions here but the one that significantly matters here is the following, is a violent felony if the conviction is for a crime that it is burglary, arson or extorsion involves the use of explosives or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.
We can get rid of the few of this.
It's not burglary, it's not arson, not extorsion, it doesn't involve the use of explosives.
But the question is, does it present a serious potential risk of physical injury to another?
Now, the lower courts thought it did but I think, we think, that the reason they thought that is because they lumped it together with a general crime called escape because all these things escape from prisons, escape from custody, failure to report for prison, failure to report for home confinement, the variety of things are all contained in the same subsection of a single Illinois provision.
Well that -- that is so, but nonetheless, we think that several of these cover separate crimes.
And in particular escape is one crime for purposes of this sentencing thing and a failure to report is another crime and we just look at that failure to report.
And once we look at that, we think it's not that difficult, we treat it as a crime differently from escape.
And when we asked the question, does the failure to report involved conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.
We think the answer has to be no.
The conducted issue is more likely to consist of just inaction, not action.
There is no convincing evidence that these kinds of people who don't report for prison, even when they're apprehended, are more dangerous than other suspects who were on the loose.
And indeed here, the United States Sentencing Commission studied the subject prepare to report and their report, they identified every federal case in 2006 and 2007 that was sentence under a particular provision called escape, instigating or assisting escape and they took those where there was a pre-sentence reports so you could find out what really happened.
They looked at 414 cases that fell into this particular category and a 160 of them involved failures to report.
So, among other things, they said, well, let's look at those failures to report.
Did any of them involve violence?
And the answer was no, not one of them.
They didn't involve violence during the commission of the offense even they failed to report, nor did they involve violence when he was later apprehended.
And the Government has provided some information as the contrary but not very much.
So, we conclude there is no risk here, not a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.
We hold that and we reverse the determination of the Court of Appeals which was to the contrary.
Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justice Thomas has joined.