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Eighth Circuit: Fleeing is a Violent Felony

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Fleeing the cops is a “violent crime” for the purpose of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), according to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

No, it’s not as violent as staring the cops down in a gun-blazing standoff, but courts are looking for the potential for violence, rather than the actual degree of violence in particular situation.

John Lee Bartel pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The district court ruled that Bartel’s four prior state convictions for fleeing police in a motor vehicle constituted violent felonies, thus making him an armed career criminal subject to a 15-year minimum sentence under the ACCA.

In reaching a plea agreement, Bartel and the government relied on a prior Eighth Circuit decision, holding that a Minnesota fleeing statute violation did not constitute a "crime of violence." Based on that understanding, Bartel would not be an armed career criminal, and would not be subject to the 15-year minimum sentence. The parties, instead, anticipated a 10-year maximum sentence.

Before Bartel was sentenced, however, the Supreme Court decided Sykes v. United States, holding that a conviction under an Indiana law concerning vehicle flight from a law enforcement officer constituted a "violent felony."

When the parties appeared before the district court for guidance on the application of Sykes to Bartel, the court indicated that Sykes made it "inescapable" and the court was "required to find this fleeing charge as a crime of violence." Although Bartel maintained his objection to the court's application of Sykes to the Minnesota fleeing statute -- and argued that the government breached the plea agreement -- he did not withdraw his plea. Bartel was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Eighth Circuit uses the "categorical approach" to determine whether an offense is a violent felony. The categorical approach doesn't require that "every conceivable factual offense covered by a statute ... necessarily present a serious potential risk of injury" to be deemed a violent felony." Instead, the court says that "the proper inquiry is whether the conduct encompassed by the elements of the offense, in the ordinary case, presents a serious potential risk of injury to another."

Here, the Eighth Circuit found that, given that the "risk of violence is inherent to vehicle flight," ordinary violations of the Minnesota statute do present a serious risk of injury to others. Although there may be ways that a person could "safely ... attempt to elude a peace officer," the court found that such practices, in the ordinary case, present a serious potential risk of injury to others.

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