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Supreme Court Rules for Defense in Federal Gun Sentence Case (1)

June 21, 2022, 2:24 PMUpdated: June 21, 2022, 3:07 PM

The US Supreme Court ruled for a criminal defendant on what counts as a “crime of violence,” in a decision that affects federal gun cases with mandatory-minimum sentences.

In a 7-2 decision, the court held an attempted Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a “crime of violence” because no element of the offense requires proof that the defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use force. The Hobbs Act punishes robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce.

Federal law 18 U.S.C. 924(c) punishes carrying or using a gun during a crime of violence, defined as one that has “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” Convictions under that law run consecutively to other sentences and carry five-year minimums.

The case stemmed from the federal prosecution of Justin Taylor. He was charged after planning a robbery of a marijuana buyer in 2003, during which his accomplice shot the buyer, who died. Taylor and the accomplice fled without the money.

Under a plea agreement, Taylor was convicted of Hobbs Act conspiracy and a crime of violence under 924(c). Taylor was sentenced to 20 years on the conspiracy and another 10 for the crime of violence.

Breaking with other circuits, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated Taylor’s 924(c) conviction. The offense doesn’t count as a crime of violence because attempted Hobbs Act robberies don’t invariably involve the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force, the Fourth Circuit said.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said no element of attempted Hobbs Act robbery requires proof that the defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use force.

“Mr. Taylor may be lawfully subject to up to 20 years in federal prison for his Hobbs Act conviction. But as the Fourth Circuit recognized, Congress has not authorized courts to convict and sentence him to a decade of further imprisonment under § 924(c)(3)(A),” he said.

In separate dissents, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito said they would have reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision. Thomas said the court’s holding “exemplifies just how this Court’s ‘categorical approach’ has led the Federal Judiciary on a ‘journey Through the Looking Glass,’ during which we have found many ‘strange things.’”

Thomas argued the court applied a narrow categorical approach to 924(c)’s elements clause and nullified the residual clause that would have captured crimes like Taylor’s.

The case is United States v. Taylor, U.S., No. 20-1459.

(Updates with additional details from opinions.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com; Lydia Wheeler in Washington at lwheeler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com