Eleventh Circuit: Vehicle Flight a "Violent Felony" Under the ACCA

By Corey Licht, Esq. on January 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Michael Petite was arrested back in 2010 during an undercover drug bust in Florida. Both a gun and a small amount of cocaine were found in Petite's possession.

Since Petite had a number of prior convictions, the gun charge led to an enhanced sentence of 188 months under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). On appeal, Petite argued that his sentence should be reduced since his prior conviction for "simple vehicle flight" doesn't qualify as a "violent felony" under the ACCA.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals thought otherwise.

The ACCA mandates a minimum sentence of 15 years for anyone convicted under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1) who also had three prior convictions for "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses."

The government argued that Petite should be characterized as an armed career criminal because of three prior convictions in Pinellas County Circuit Court: a conviction for robbery in 1993, a conviction for the sale of cocaine in 1998, and a conviction for fleeing and attempting to elude law enforcement in 2006.

On appeal, Petite conceded that the two earliest convictions qualified as a "violent felony" and a "serious drug offense," respectively. However, he objected to the use of vehicle flight conviction in support of the enhanced sentence, claiming that "simple vehicle flight" doesn't qualify as a "violent felony" under the ACCA.

The court stated that the ACCA had three categories of "violent felonies": (1) Felonies that involve the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force against another person, (2) Felonies that involve burglary, arson, extortion, or the use of explosives, and (3) Felonies that involve conduct that creates a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

Vehicle flight fell into the third catchall category, according to the court. The court then applied the Supreme Court's "modified categorical approach," which looks at the statute itself rather than the specifics of the crime in determining whether an offense qualifies as a "violent felony."

In analyzing whether Florida's vehicle flight offense is one that "creates a serious potential risk of physical injury to another," the court looked to the Supreme Court's analysis in Sykes v. United States for guidance. That case involved an Indiana vehicle flight statute that was remarkably similar to Florida's statute.

Rather than focusing on the perpetrator's actions, the Supreme Court in Sykes emphasized the emergency response to the actions. Echoing the Supreme Court's holding in Sykes, the Eleventh Circuit noted that "confrontation with police is the expected result of vehicle flight" and that this confrontation "places property and persons at serious risk of injury."

The court concluded that "simple vehicle flight" qualifies as a "violent felony" for purposes of sentencing enhancement under the ACCA. Petite's 188-month sentence was affirmed.

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