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Habitual Criminals and State Offense Definition Variations

Reasonable people largely agree that repeat offenders should be punished more severely than first offenders.  When a criminal is convicted of the new offense in a different jurisdiction, though, categorizing the prior offense has proven to be a continuing problem.

Classifying a federal defendant as a "career offender" under ยง 4B1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines requires deciding if his prior conviction qualifies as a "crime of violence."  How about this crime?  Is this violent?

When petitioner pleaded guilty, this is what was said:

"'[Assistant District Attorney]: On . . . April 27, 2004, . . . [petitioner] grabbed Mrs. Marrero by the neck, attempting to drag her upstairs to the second floor. When she tried to make a phone call, he ripped the phone cord out of the wall as she was attempting to call 911.'"

"'The Court: Do you admit those facts?'"

"'The Defendant: Yes, Sir.'"
Sounds violent to me.  What's the problem?
This crime was prosecuted under Pennsylvania law, and Mr. Marrero was convicted of simple assault, a crime defined as one in which the defendant "attempts to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another."  Today, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment affirming the career criminal finding and "remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for further consideration in light of Descamps v. United States, 570 U.S. ___ (2013)."

Justice Alito, joined by Justice Kennedy, dissents, saying that this action "shows that the Court's elaboration of its 'modified categorical' approach has completely lost touch with reality."

In sending this case back to the Third Circuit for a second look, this Court is apparently troubled by the possibility that petitioner was convicted merely for reckless conduct, and it is of course true that he did not say expressly that he intentionally or knowingly grabbed Mrs. Marrero by the neck or that he intentionally or knowingly attempted to drag her up a flight of stairs. The Court may be entertaining the possibility that what petitioner meant was that he grabbed what he believed to be some inanimate object with a neck--perhaps a mannequin named Mrs. Marrero--and attempted to drag that object up the steps. In that event, his conduct might have been merely reckless and not intentional or knowing.

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