It is a federal crime for a convicted felon to be in unlawful possession of a firearm. The maximum sentence for that crime is typically 10 years in prison. If, however, a convicted felon has three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense when he unlawfully possesses a firearm, the punishment increases to a minimum prison sentence of 15 years.
But what exactly is a violent felony? In recent years the United States Supreme Court has addressed this question in several cases including the recent case of Sykes v. United States. In that case, Marcus Sykes pled guilty to being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. Two of his prior felony convictions were for armed robbery, while a third conviction was for the felony offense of vehicle flight in violation of Indiana's law regarding resisting a law enforcement officer. The facts of Sykes' vehicle-flight violation are as follows:
"After observing Sykes driving without using needed headlights, police activated their emergency equipment for a traffic stop. Sykes did not stop. A chase ensued. Sykes wove through traffic, drove on the wrong side of the road and through yards containing bystanders, passed through a fence, and struck the rear of a house. Then he fled on foot. He was found only with the aid of a police dog."
The trial judge who sentenced Sykes decided that he had three prior violent felony convictions on his criminal record, one of them being the Indiana vehicle-flight offense. Sykes appealed that judge's decision. Unfortunately for Sykes, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge's decision.
In ruling that the Indiana vehicle-flight offense was indeed a violent felony, the Supreme Court reasoned that:
"The attempt to elude capture is a direct challenge to an officer's authority. It is a provocative and dangerous act that dares, and in a typical case requires, the officer to give chase. The felon's conduct gives the officer reason to believe that the defendant has something more serious than a traffic violation to hide. In Sykes' case, officers pursued a man with two prior violent felony convictions and marijuana in his possession. . . . Because an accepted way to restrain a driver who poses dangers to others is through seizure, officers pursuing fleeing drivers may deem themselves duty bound to escalate their response to ensure the felon is apprehended. . . . And once the pursued vehicle is stopped, it is sometimes necessary for officers to approach with guns drawn to effect arrest. Confrontation with police is the expected result of vehicle flight. It places property and persons at serious risk of injury. Risk of violence is inherent to vehicle flight. Between the confrontations that initiate and terminate the incident, the intervening pursuit creates high risks of crashes. . . . It is well known that when offenders use motor vehicles as their means of escape they create serious potential risks of physical injury to others. Flight from a law enforcement officer invites, even demands, pursuit. As that pursuit continues, the risk of an accident accumulates. And having chosen to flee, and thereby commit a crime, the perpetrator has all the more reason to seek to avoid capture."
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