On June 9, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Sykes v. United States, No. 09-11311, holding that a conviction under Indiana law for using a motor vehicle to knowingly or intentionally flee from a law enforcement officer was a "violent felony" for purposes of increasing the mandatory minimum sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e).

Ordinarily, the maximum sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is 10 years. 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2). But if the felon had three previous convictions for a violent felony of serious drug offense, the minimum sentence increases to 15 years, § 924(e). One way a felony is considered violent is if it "involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." § 924(e)(2)(B).

When Marcus Sykes pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, he had previously been convicted of armed robbery on two occasions, marking two clear violent felonies. His third conviction was under Indiana law for using a car to knowingly or intentionally flee from a law enforcement officer.

The question presented was whether this counted as a third violent felony. The district court held that it did. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, and so did the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court determines categorically whether a state offense is a violent felony, based only on the fact of the conviction and the statutory definition of the offense, not on the particular facts underlying the conviction. Here, the elements of the Indiana law required knowingly or intentionally fleeing from a law enforcement officer using a motor vehicle. To fall within those elements, a felon's conduct necessarily involves "a lack of concern for the safety of property and persons of pedestrians and other drivers." Like burglary, which is specifically listed as a crime of violence, fleeing an officer by car creates a risk of ending in a violent confrontation. Statistics showing a large number of people killed and injured during chase-related crashes confirm that fleeing an officer by car is violent. The fact that Indiana also penalizes using a vehicle in a way that creates a substantial risk of bodily injury does not mean that knowingly fleeing an officer is not also violent. Both offenses are punished equally severely, indicating both are violent.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor joined.  Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.  Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion.  Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

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