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Supreme Court: DUI not a “violent felony”


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11/17/2008
Vaughan de Kirby
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On April 16th, in the case of Begay v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that a DUI does not qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Understanding Supreme Court decisions is never easy. What often sound like sweeping rulings are inevitably based on legal technicalities—usually boiling down to a question about the intended definition of a certain word or phrase.

Although the case of Begay v. United States is no exception, the question before the Court could not be more fundamental: is drunk driving a violent crime? In the words of the court, does it “involve purposeful, violent, and aggressive conduct toward another person”?

Many anti-drunk driving groups, most notably MADD, would have us think so. In fact, MADD’s mission statement calls DUI a “violent crime.”

Does the Supreme Court agree?

They do not.

Here’s some background on the decision:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is a federal law that imposes a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for firearm possession when the individual has three or more prior convictions for certain drug-related offenses or “violent felonies.”

In September 2004, Larry Begay, a New Mexico resident, plead guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm. Begay had been convicted of DUI six times, and New Mexico law makes a fourth DUI a felony, giving him three prior felony convictions. The judge concluded that Begay’s prior DUI convictions constituted “violent felonies” and sentenced him to the mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years.

Begay and his lawyers appealed the decision, arguing that DUI does not qualify as a “violent felony” under the federal Act. Several years later, Begay’s case reached the Supreme Court.

The ACCA defines a violent felony as “burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

The Court interpreted the law as defining a violent felony as more than simply something that “presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” In light of the law’s specific list of criminal acts—burglary, arson, extortion, the use of explosives—the Court concluded that the definition of “violent felonies” was meant to include only crimes that involve “purposeful, violent, and aggressive conduct toward another person.” According to the Court, DUI doesn’t qualify.

Predictably, MADD was unhappy with the decision.  

Every since MADD changed its name from “Mothers Against Drunk Drivers” to “Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” the organization has been careful to maintain the appearance that they hate the sin but not the sinner.

However, MADD’s criticism of the Supreme Court betrays this façade. In the organization’s collective mind, those convicted of drunk driving are in the same category as burglars and arsonists.

Like the majority of the Supreme Court—including some of its most liberal and conservative members—I must disagree.



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