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Not Every Reckless Offense is a "Violent Felony"

Borden v. United States Docket: 19-5410, Opinion Date: June 10, 2021. Borden pleaded guilty as a felon-in-possession. The prosecution sought an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for persons found guilty of illegally possessing a firearm who have three or more prior convictions for a “violent felony.” An offense qualifies as a violent felony under ACCA’s elements clause if it necessarily involves “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another,” 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(B)(i). One of Borden’s three predicate convictions was for reckless aggravated assault in violation of Tennessee law. Borden argued that this offense was not a violent felony under ACCA’s elements clause because a mental state of recklessness suffices for conviction and only purposeful or knowing conduct satisfies the requirement of the use of force “against the person of another.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed his enhanced sentence. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, with four Justices concluding that a criminal offense with a mens rea of recklessness does not qualify as a “violent felony” under ACCA’s elements clause. The Justices found that the narrow “category of violent, active crimes” is best understood to involve a purposeful or knowing mental state—a deliberate choice of wreaking harm on another, rather than mere indifference to risk. Classifying reckless crimes as “violent felonies” would also conflict with ACCA’s purpose of addressing the special danger created when a particular type of offender, a violent criminal, possesses a gun. The “against” clause is not window dressing: It is the “critical” text for deciding the level of mens rea needed.

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