Supreme Court: DUIs Are Not Violent Felonies


Late last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that DUI convictions cannot be considered violent felonies under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which allows for enhanced prison sentences for "career criminals" found to possess a firearm. The decision has interesting implications.

Larry Begay, a New Mexico man, had 12 convictions for DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) in his home state. Because New Mexico considers fourth and subsequent DUI convictions felonies, Begay had more than three felonies on his record when he pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm, according to the Associated Press.

Possession of a firearm is illegal after being convicted of a felony.

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence is required for those who have been convicted of three violent felonies or certain drug crimes who are found to be in possession of a firearm. In New Mexico criminal court, Begay was reportedly given a 15-year sentence, which was upheld by an appellate court.

But the Supreme Court overturned the rulings, citing the language of the Act in its 6-3 decision.

The text of the Armed Career Criminal Act defines a violent felony as one that "is burglary, arson or extortion, involves use of explosives or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

Basically, according to the Supreme Court's ruling, the Act's extended sentence can be applied to those with convictions for crimes that would be made more serious by the involvement of a firearm. Further, the opinion notes that the list of crimes punishable by the Act suggests that only crimes similar to those listed make the convict eligible for enhanced sentencing.

Although drunk driving can cause serious damage and even death, the justices apparently felt that DUI differs from the crimes listed because it doesn't involve a comparable level of forethought and purposeful action.

The Supreme Court justices backed their opinion by noting that, if the Act were meant to be interpreted as applying to all felonies that put others at risk of physical injury, the authors of the law would not have included any examples.

And, indeed, it's difficult to imagine how possession of a gun would change the impact of driving while intoxicated. Begay's sentence, then, will be restricted by normal New Mexico DUI sentencing laws and not enhanced by the Armed Career Criminal Act.

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