Sunday, November 22, 2009

PA Simple Assault = crime of violence under knowing/intentional part of statute

In US v. James Henry Johnson, No. 08-3693 (3d Cir. 11/18/09), the Circuit examined whether simple assault under Pennsylvania statute is a crime of violence for purposes of USSG § 4B1.2(a)(2). The Court, while stating that it was not actually ruling on the issue, expressly doubted that a simple assault committed recklessly could be a crime of violence in light of US v. Begay, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008). But the Court did rule that simple assault committed knowingly or intentionally does qualify as a crime of violence. It remanded for a resentencing hearing at which the district court is to determine whether Johnson’s prior conviction for simple assault was for the part of the statute charging knowing and intentional conduct, as opposed to reckless conduct.

Johnson was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. At sentencing, the Court enhanced the guidelines range by counting Johnson’s prior simple assault conviction as a "crime of violence" under USSG § 4B1.2(a)(2). The Third Circuit in US v. Dorsey, 174 F.3d 331 (3d Cir. 1999), had ruled the simple assault does qualify as a crime of violence, even though the offense can be committed recklessly.

On appeal, the Circuit, in a lengthy footnote, explained that under Begay, only "purposeful, violent and aggressive" conduct can count as a crime of violence. This "suggest[s] that a crime committed recklessly is not a crime of violence," as nearly every other Circuit has already held. The government on appeal conceded the issue, explaining that the Department of Justice position now is that "reckless conduct, standing alone, is not the type of purposeful conduct that can constitute a crime of violence." Thus, the government conceded that Dorsey is no longer good law in light of Begay.

Normally such a concession would make the Court’s resolution of the issue easier. But here, for reasons that are not made clear in the opinion, the Court took the government’s concession as a reason not to resolve the issue. Instead, the Court ruled that knowing or intentional simple assault would qualify as a crime of violence, and it remanded to the district court to determine under the "categorical approach" whether Johnson’s conviction was under this part of the statute. If not, then in light of the DOJ’s concession, the prior conviction as reckless simple assault cannot count as a crime of violence. The Court made clear that this categorical determination is not a factual one but instead solely a question of what part of the statute Johnson actually pled guilty to: "[W]hat matters is the mens rea to which Johnson actually pleaded guilty," and not the facts in the Presentence Report suggesting the conduct was intentional.

Most likely, the Court’s reason for not expressly resolving the recklessness issue is because the same issue is currently pending in two other cases before the Court, and this panel wanted to leave the issue for resolution in one of those cases.

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