Skip to main content

Court Rejects Challenge to USVI Gun Statute

In U.S. v. Fontaine, No. 11-2602 (August 28, 2012), a Virgin Islands case, the Circuit held that the local statute criminalizing unauthorized possession of an "imitation" firearm during a crime of violence was not void for vagueness. It also held that the government had proved its case against Fontaine.

The statute reads: Whoever, unless otherwise authorized by law, has, possesses, bears, transports or carries either, actually or constructively, openly or concealed any firearm . . . loaded or unloaded . . . shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than one year nor more than five years except that if such person shall have been convicted of a felony in any state, territory, or federal court of the United States, or if such firearm or an imitation thereof was had, possessed, borne, transported or carried by or under the proximate control of such person during the commission or attempted commission of a crime of violence, as defined in subsection (d) hereof, then such person shall be . . . imprisoned not less than fifteen (15) years nor more than twenty (20) years.

Fontaine and an accomplice robbed two victims at gunpoint. Police arrested Fontaine nine days later, but never recovered the gun. Although Fontaine threated to shoot the gun during the robbery, when he pulled the trigger, it didn’t fire. There was thus no evidence of its operability, and the government was forced to proceed on the "imitation" prong of the statute.

Fontaine argued that the statute was vague. The Court dispatched this argument readily. It noted that the plain meaning of "imitation" gave ample notice who might be punished. Particularly in a case like Fontaine’s, where the imitation gun was used just like a real gun would be, the Court continued, a defendant could have no complaint.

Fontaine also argued that the government had the burden to prove that he was not "authorized" to possess an imitation firearm. The Court held that the statute should be read simply to require proof that the defendant is not authorized to possess a firearm. Persons who are not authorized to possess firearms are also not authorized to possess a firearm in a crime of violence or possess an imitation firearm in a crime of violence. Any other reading, the Court argues, would be absurd. (Perhaps not so absurd, given that Judge Cowen dissents on this point, in a 10-page opinion?)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Double Jeopardy Claim Falls Short on Deferential Habeas Review

In the habeas matter of Wilkerson v. Superintendent Fayette SCI, Nos. 15-1598 & 15-2673, the Third Circuit defers to a state court determination that the defendant’s conviction of both an attempted murder count and an aggravated assault count based on the same altercation did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.
The evidence was that during the altercation, the defendant both struck the victim in the head with a gun and shot him in the chest. The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld consecutive sentences on the theory that the evidence was sufficient to permit a jury to find the striking to support one count and the shooting the other. Despite the jury instructions’ and verdict form’s failure to require each of these discrete findings, the Third Circuit holds that the state court’s reasoning was sound enough to withstand deferential review the AEDPA’s “clearly established Federal law” limitation. “[W]here the jury instructions were merely ambiguous and did not foreclose the jury…

Mailing Threatening Communications is a Crime of Violence and a Judicial Proposal for Reform of the Categorical Approach

In United States v. Chapman, __F.3d__, No. 16-1810, 2017 WL 3319287 (3d Cir. Aug. 4, 2017), the Third Circuit held that mailing a letter containing any threat to injure the recipient or another person in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c) qualifies as a crime of violence for the purposes of the career offender enhancements of the Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1(a).The Court acknowledged in a footnote that the analysis is the same for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 871, threats against the president.


The Court began its analysis by reviewing the definition of “crime of violence” and specifically the meaning of the words “use” and “physical force.”Quoting United States v. Castleman, 134 S. Ct. 1405 (2014), and Tran v. Gonzales, 414 F.3d 464 (3d Cir. 2005), it defined “use” as “the intentional employment of force, generally to obtain some end,” which conveys the notion that the thing used “has become the user’s instrument.” The Court confirmed the definition of “physical force” as “force ca…

A Traffic Stop Followed by a Summons is not an Intervening Arrest for Sentencing Guidelines Purposes

In United States v. Ley, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 5618617 (3d Cir., Nov. 22, 2017), the Third Circuit held that a traffic stop, followed by the issuance of a summons, is not an intervening arrest for the purpose of calculating a defendant’s prior convictions under USSG § 4A1.2(a)(2).   Defendant John Francis Ley received two speeding tickets on two consecutive days.  After writing each ticket, the police released Ley and informed him that the matter would proceed via summons.  No arrest was made and Ley was sentenced for both matters on the same day. The District Court, however, held that the issuance of the summons constituted an intervening arrest for the purposes of the Guidelines and each ticket therefore merited an individual criminal history point.  Ley appealed.  Looking at the ordinary meaning of both “arrest” and “summons,” as well as the Supreme Court’s history of distinguishing arrests from other interactions with law enforcement, the Third Circuit, joining three other circuits …