When is a crime a violent crime? The question might seem relevant only in the context of impersonal statistics or abstract criminology. But for some defendants, decades of mandatory prison time hang in the balance. In United States federal criminal law, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) prescribes a five-year minimum sentence for an individual who commits a “crime of violence” while armed.
Depending on the type of firearm carried or the existence of prior convictions, the minimum sentence can grow to life in prison.
The defendant receives the § 924(c) sentence on top of any punishment already imposed for the predicate crime itself,
and the statute explicitly disallows probation and concurrent prison terms.
Other parts of the federal criminal law apply similarly severe penalties for violence. The “crime of violence” provision in 18 U.S.C. § 16, for example, in conjunction with the Immigration and Nationality Act, adds deportation to the list of possible penalties for violence.
When a crime is a violent crime, it earns harsh consequences.
Such harsh consequences give great significance to the legal definition of violence. This Note argues that the United States’ definition doesn’t work. In the federal criminal code, an offense qualifies as a crime of violence if it “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.”
Perfectly sensible at first glance, this statutory language gets pushed through a patchwork of court-made doctrine that magnifies the language’s imprecision and turns the sensible into the senseless. This Note is the first to examine the senselessness that newly evolved doctrine can create when it confronts one word from § 924(c)’s violence definition: property.
Notwithstanding imprecision across the whole of § 924(c)’s violence definition—“the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another”
—the reference to property is notably anomalous.
What is the use of force against property, and what relation does it have to violence? How does force against property compare to force against persons? Does the provision demand violence classification in the name of broken windows and graffitied walls, or does it leave such minor contact with property outside the scope of violence? Federal courts grapple with these questions and arrive at different answers.
The courts’ answers matter. In FY2020, federal courts handed down 2,525 convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), with the resultant prison terms averaging over eleven years.
Countless other § 924(c) charges were bargained away or voluntarily forgone by prosecutors.
Prosecutors’ discretion to bring § 924(c) charges against a wide range of varyingly harmful conduct raises concerns of unfair application of the laws. In the summer of 2020, for example, prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York brought § 924(c) charges against two protestors who lobbed Molotov cocktails into a deserted police car.
If convicted, the protesters would have faced a mandatory minimum sentence of thirty years for the § 924(c) charges alone.
This Note shows that the property provision muddles the doctrine surrounding the statutory crime of violence definition to the extent that it raises unconstitutional vagueness concerns. Doctrinal constraints force courts to evaluate crimes on a categorical (as opposed to case-by-case) basis that applies the crime of violence label only when all manifestations of a particular crime necessarily involve the use of force against persons or property.
That is, one case of a crime is not violent unless all cases of that crime are. The current approach diverts courts to sideshows, where they must consider idiosyncratic versions of crimes that have little to do with the defendant’s actual conduct. These sideshows can raise crucial questions about whether property crimes are violent. A 2019 Tenth Circuit case involving witness retaliation provides an example.
The defendant had physically beaten a witness, but the court could not classify the beating as a crime of violence without first deciding that spray painting a car—conduct that could satisfy the same witness retaliation offense—also constituted violence as defined in § 924(c) (that is, whether spray painting involves the use of force against the property of another).
The current crime of violence definition leads justice astray by necessitating a dubious, overly technical inquiry. It bears little connection to any sensible understanding of criminal violence and relies on the false equivalence of force used against persons and force used against property.
The inclusion of property in a force-based definition of violent crime contravenes traditional conceptions of violence, burdens courts with inapt inquiries, leads to incongruous applications of punishment, and violates due process guarantees against vague laws.
Finally, this Note argues that, in the absence of legislative intervention, the federal crime of violence definition can still survive scrutiny if federal courts follow a novel statutory interpretation that imputes a nexus requirement between property and person. The use of physical force against property constitutes violence if it implies, provokes, or impends the use of force against a person. Without a nexus requirement, the federal code’s violence classification scheme is untenable. Interpreted literally, it is unreasonable; interpreted liberally, it is unworkable; interpreted in light of existing doctrine, it is unconstitutional.
Part I summarizes the relevant theoretical, legislative, and doctrinal understandings of violence. Part II explains how the notion of violence against property complicates the already convoluted crime of violence jurisprudence. Part III offers a solution for reconciling crime of violence doctrine with a more reasonable conception of violence.