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Supreme Court narrows the definition of violent crime

The outcome sparked two conservative justices to condemn the decision Tuesday as divorced from reality.  

WASHINGTON (CN) — Attempted robbery does not fall under the definition of a crime of violence, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, setting a distinction that will save people convicted under the Hobbs Act of facing additional prison time on top of a sentence set to max out at 20 years.

The case was triggered by the 2003 murder of Martin Silvester by Justin Eugene Taylor during a marijuana drug deal. Taylor planned to rob Silvester during their meeting, and his accomplice pulled the trigger on a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol when Silvester resisted. 

Taylor pleaded guilty to two of the seven counts on which he was indicted. As part of the deal, he admitted guilt to Hobbs Act conspiracy and using a firearm during a crime of violence and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Taylor already appealed unsuccessfully all the way to the Supreme Court on the basis that his sentence was calculated incorrectly. His latest appeal took the separate position that the crimes he committed did not qualify as crimes of violence. 

This time, the Fourth Circuit agreed and the Supreme Court affirmed affirmed 7-2 on Tuesday.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the government’s theory to figure out if attempted Hobbs Act robberies qualify as crimes of violence goes beyond the directions that Congress gives to courts. 

“Congress tasked the courts with a much more straightforward job: Look at the elements of the underlying crime and ask whether they require the government to prove the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force,” the Trump appointee wrote. “Following that direction in this case, the Fourth Circuit correctly recognized that, to convict a defendant of attempted Hobbs Act robbery, the government does not have to prove any of those things.” 

The majority uses a categorical approach to decide the case. For the government to convict someone for attempted Hobbs Act robbery, the government must prove the defendant intended to unlawfully take property by means of actual or threatened force and that they completed a “substantial step” to do so. Gorsuch said both sides agree that a substantial step is more than just preparation and must be unequivocal and significant. Gorsuch said the case can be resolved on that knowledge alone. 

“Whatever one might say about completed Hobbs Act robbery, attempted Hobbs Act robbery does not satisfy the elements clause,” the lead opinion continues (emphasis in original). “Yes, to secure a conviction the government must show an intention to take property by force or threat, along with a substantial step toward achieving that object. But an intention is just that, no more. And whatever a substantial step requires, it does not require the government to prove that the defendant used, attempted to use, or even threatened to use force against another person or his property.”

In one of two dissents to the ruling, meanwhile, Justices Clarence Thomas repeated "Alice in Wonderland"-based metaphors that he first started during oral arguments to describe the court’s ruling. 

“This 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 wrote. “Rather than continue this 30-year excursion into the absurd, I would hold Taylor accountable for what he actually did and uphold his conviction.” 

Justice Samuel Alito agreed in the separate dissent that the court’s ruling “veered off into fantasy land,” saying that, even if the court wanted to “disregard the real world,” an attempted Hobbs Act robbery would still qualify as a crime of violence. 

Michael Dreeben, a partner at O’Melveny and Myers representing Taylor, did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling, nor did the Department of Justice.

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