Thursday, March 01, 2018

SC Involuntary Manslaughter Not Violent Felony; Irby and Reid In Doubt?

US v. Middleton: Middleton was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court determined he qualified for sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on (among other things) a 1980 conviction in South Carolina for involuntary manslaughter. Middleton was sentenced to 180 months in prison. In 2016, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson, Middleton filed a second 2255 motion to vacate his sentence, arguing that he no longer qualified for ACCA. The district court denied the motion, but issued a certificate of appealability on the involuntary manslaughter issue.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that involuntary manslaughter is not a violent felony for ACCA purposes. Although the ultimate result was unanimous, the court divided over the best way to reach that result. Chief Judge Gregory, writing for himself and Judge Harris, focused on whether the offense "sweeps more broadly than the physical force required under the ACCA's force clause" and agreed with Middleton that it did. The court in particular looked to a South Carolina Court of Appeals opinion that affirmed an involuntary manslaughter conviction in a case where an adult sold a minor alcohol, after which the minor drove drunk and was killed in an accident. Thus, as Chief Judge Gregory put it, under the categorical approach "the ultimate issue in this case is whether selling alcohol to a minor involves the requisite use of violent force." The Government argued, as they have frequently, that the Supreme Court's decision in Castleman settled this because it rejected the idea that one can be convicted of an offense resulting in death without using violent force. The court turned away that argument, concluding that the Government "ignores the distinction between de minimus force, as discussed in Castleman and violent force" and "erroneously conflates the use of violent force with the causation of injury." The court concluded that "Castleman's discussion of force does not control this case" because the force at issue there was different than the force required under ACCA. As to the concept that "causing injury categorically means violent force was used," the court concluded that the portion of its 2012 decision in Torres-Miguel holding that "a crime may result in death or serious injury without involving the use of physical force" had not been abrogated by Castleman. Subsequent decisions, such as Irby and Reid, did not change that. Those cases "cannot rely on Castleman - for a holding it did not make" to "surmount this Court's prior decision in Torres-Miguel." which remains binding. However, those cases do "confirm[] that a defendant may cause injury indirectly as well as directly for purposes of ACCA's force clause," but that has no impact on this case because the state court decision does not meet that standard.

Judge Floyd concurred in the result, but would have done so on the ground that involuntary manslaughter in South Carolina could not be a violent felony because ACCA "requires a higher degree of mens rea than recklessness" and "an individual can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter in South Carolina based on reckless conduct." However, Judge Floyd spent some time in his concurrence arguing that "[c]ontrary to the majority's attempt to limit Castleman to the MCDV force clause, this Court in Irby and Reid already extended Castleman's reasoning to other force clauses, including the ACCA force clause." Thus, Judge Floyd concluded, "the majority's analysis does not adequately address this Court's post-Castleman decisions." Based on those cases, he "question[s] the viability of distinguishing between use of force and causation of injury." Those cases also, Judge Floyd argues "raise questions as to whether" the distinction the majority draws between the use of force and causation of injury "remains viable."

Congrats to the Defender office in South Carolina on the win!