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Supreme Court hears sentencing, gun law, testimonial evidence cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Monday in three cases. In Chambers v. United States [oral arguments transcript, PDF; merit briefs], the Court will consider whether failure to report to prison constitutes a "violent felony" for purposes of sentence enhancement under the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) [18 USC § 924(e), text]. Petitioner Deondery Chambers pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. At sentencing the state of Illinois argued that he was subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the ACCA, based in part on a prior conviction for escape when he failed to report to prison. Relying on Seventh Circuit precedent, the District Court held that this type of escape constituted a "violent felony" under the ACCA. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit court affirmed [opinion, PDF]. There is a circuit split on this issue with the Ninth and DC Circuits holding that failure to report is not a violent felony and the other 10 circuits holding that it is. At oral argument, counsel for petitioner argued that "[f]ailure to report is not a violent felony...because it presents neither a serious potential risk of injury to others nor involves violent and aggressive conduct," while counsel for the state argued that "[f]ailure to report...is similar in kind to burglary because it's purposeful, violent, and aggressive in the same way as burglary."

The Supreme Court also heard arguments in the case of United States v. Hayes [oral arguments transcript, PDF; merit briefs], in which the Court will consider whether a federal gun law [18 USC § 922(g)(9), text], which prohibits anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a firearm, requires that a domestic relationship between an attacker and victim be a specific element of the crime. Respondent Randy Edward Hayes was convicted in 1994 under a West Virginia battery statute for battering his wife, but a domestic relationship between the victim and the attacker was not a specific element of that statute. Hayes was indicted by a federal district court for possessing a firearm in violation of § 922(g)(9). On appeal the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed [opinion, PDF], holding that § 922(g)(9) requires a domestic relationship element, even though nine other circuits have held that no such element is required. At oral arguments, counsel for the US argued that Hayes's conviction for battery is a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence because "the statutory text is most naturally read that way...[and] a contrary reading would defeat Congress's purposes. Counsel for respondent argued that the government's argument "describes a statute that Congress considered but did not pass."

Finally, the Court heard arguments Monday in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts [oral arguments transcript, PDF; merit briefs], in which the Court will consider whether a forensic analyst's laboratory report is testimonial evidence under the Confrontation Clause, giving criminal defendants a right to cross-examine the analysts. In the 2004 case of Crawford v. Washington [opinion, PDF] the Court held that testimonial evidence could not be admitted unless the defendant had an opportunity to cross-examine the witness. Since then, courts have struggled to determine what constitutes "testimonial evidence." Counsel for the petitioner argued that forensic laboratory reports "are crafted purposefully for the express purpose of proving a fact that is an element of a criminal offense" and are "quintessentially testimonial evidence." Counsel for the state of Massachusetts argued that such reports are not testimonial evidence, but rather are a "report of a scientist test."

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