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World & Nation

Supreme Court weighs in on car chases

Fleeing from the police in a vehicle can trigger a mandatory 15-year term in federal prison for a repeat criminal, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 6-3 decision, the court said that “vehicular flight” counts as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act, triggering the mandatory term if it is a third offense. Speeding away from the police “presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “It is a provocative and dangerous act that dares, and in a typical case requires, the officer to give chase.”

Congress adopted the law in 1984 as an early version of a “three strikes” measure. Gun-carrying criminals with three violent felonies on their record would get at least 15 years in prison. But the law itself did not carefully define what crimes counted, except to mention burglary, arson, extortion and other acts that involved force or a risk of serious injury.

The justices, with some reluctance, have taken on the task of deciding what Congress meant. In 2007, they said attempted burglary counts because it can lead to a violent confrontation. A year later, however, they said driving under the influence does not qualify because it is not an aggressively violent act.

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Marcus Sykes, an Indiana man, appealed the issue after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for two different robberies in Indianapolis, of a woman’s purse and a wristwatch. After the second incident in 2008, an officer spotted Sykes as he tried to walk away and toss his gun aside. He pleaded guilty to the gun possession and robbery.

At his sentencing hearing, prosecutors showed he had been convicted in 2002 for attempting to flee the police in Lawrence, Ind. He was driving a car with no headlights and tried to drive away when an officer flashed his emergency lights. He was soon stopped and arrested.

The justices decided that offense counted as a “violent felony,” and they upheld his 15-year prison term.

But the ruling split the justices in an unusual way. Joining Kennedy in the majority were fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., as well as liberals Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

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Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia dissented on the grounds that the law as written by Congress was “hopelessly vague.”

“Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nitty-gritty. In the field of criminal law, at least, it is time to call a halt,” Scalia wrote. He has consistently objected to criminal laws that do not clearly spell out the crime.

Liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented separately. They said Sykes was convicted of “simple vehicular flight,” not a high-speed or dangerous flight that truly qualifies as potentially violent.

A second decision handed down Wednesday also interpreted a 1980s get-tough-on-crime law in a way that means longer prison terms for some criminals. In a 9-0 ruling, the court said a 10-year mandatory prison term for having 50 grams of “cocaine base” applies not just to crack cocaine, but to coca paste and freebase forms of cocaine.

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david.savage@latimes.com


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