Dispatches from the Creation Wars

This case will probably never be a staple of the law texts, but it’s substantively important and, I believe, correctly decided.

The case is Chambers v. United States. From the syllabus of the opinion.

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) imposes a 15-year mandatory prison term on a felon unlawfully in possession of a firearm who has three prior convictions for committing certain drug crimes or “a violent felony,” 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(1), defined as a crime punishable by more than one year’s imprisonment that, inter alia, “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” §924(e)(2)(B)(ii). At petitioner Chambers’ sentencing for being a felon in possession of a firearm, the Government sought ACCA’s 15-year mandatory prison term. Chambers disputed one of his prior convictions–failing to report for weekend confinement–as falling outside the ACCA definition of “violent felony.” The District Court treated the failure to report as a form of what the relevant state statute calls “escape from [a] penal institution,” and held that it qualified as a “violent felony” under ACCA. The Seventh Circuit agreed.

Held: Illinois’ crime of failure to report for penal confinement falls outside the scope of ACCA’s “violent felony” definition. …

Failure to report is a separate crime from escape. Its underlying behavior differs from the more aggressive behavior underlying escape, and it is listed separately in the statute’s title and body and is of a different felony class than escape.

Hear, hear! This case is, at its foundation, about over-reaching executive power that is wholly disinterested in due process and civil liberties. Even the conservatives on this Court were not convinced by the conflation of what is essentially a crime of “inaction” (as Breyer puts it in the opinion) and a crime of action, and plausibly violent action. The decision was 9-0 (with 7 joining the opinion and Alito and Scalia concurring); a pretty clear sign that the federal authorities should have known better from the start.