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Criminal Practice – SC involuntary manslaughter can be non-violent

Holding: The defendant’s prior conviction for involuntary manslaughter in South Carolina did not qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Background

Appellant Jarnaro Carlos Middleton pled guilty to being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. The district court found that Middleton was subject to enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, at 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1), having three prior convictions that qualified as “violent felonies” under the Act. Middleton appealed his sentence on grounds that one of his prior offenses – a 1980 conviction for South Carolina involuntary manslaughter – does not meet the Act’s definition of a violent felony, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

Physical-force requirement

The only question before the court is whether the offense qualifies as a violent felony under § 942(e)(2)(B)(i), the Act’s “force clause.” The force clause requires “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

Congress did not define the term “physical force,” but the Supreme Court has given the phrase its ordinary meaning: “force exerted by and through concrete bodies,” as opposed to intellectual or emotional force. Because the term “physical force” contributes to the definition of a “violent felony,” it is understood to mean “violent force – that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.” Therefore, “physical force” under the Act’s force clause must be both physical and violent.

Involuntary manslaughter

Based on the foregoing, Middleton is correct that South Carolina involuntary manslaughter sweeps more broadly than the physical force required under the Act’s force clause.

To prove the offense, the state must show that the defendant killed another person without malice and unintentionally, while engaged in either (1) an unlawful activity not amounting to a felony and not naturally tending to cause death or great bodily harm, or (2) a lawful activity with reckless disregard for the safety of others. In assessing this offense categorically, the court must look for the least culpable conduct encompassed, which is presented in State v. Hambright, 426 S.E.2d 806 (S.C. Ct. App. 1992).

In that case, Hambright was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after he sold alcohol to a high school student. The student had arrived by car at the defendant’s home to purchase the alcohol. After the sale, the student consumed the alcohol with the car’s driver, who resumed driving the car and died after crashing into a telephone pole. An autopsy determined that alcohol was a significant contributing factor to the driver’s death.

Because Hambright used no violent physical force against the victim, South Carolina involuntary manslaughter is broader than the Act’s force clause and therefore does not qualify as a violent felony. Hambright used “force” only to exchange alcohol for money. The actions were physical, but selling alcohol to minors, without more, falls short of the violent force required under the Act.

The Act’s force clause may apply even when force indirectly causes injury, such as through the knowing use of poison to cause harm. But alcohol is distinguishable from poison, as it lacks the same certainty of harm. The South Carolina court found that Hambright acted only with “reckless disregard” for the safety of another, which falls short of knowingly causing harm. Hambright never actually interacted with the driver, and only after several intervening steps did the driver ultimately crash. It does not follow that any action leading to bodily injury necessarily qualifies as a use of violent physical force against the person of another. To hold otherwise would allow any illegal sale – even of a fake identification card – to trigger the Act’s force clause if physical injury eventually results.

Accordingly, South Carolina involuntary manslaughter does not fit the Act’s force clause because it can be committed through a non-violent sale.

Reversed and remanded.

Concurrence

(Floyd, J.) In my view, our recent decisions in In re Irby, 858 F.3d 231 (4th Cir. 2017) and United States v. Reid, 861 F.3d 523 (4th Cir. 2017) undermine the majority’s reasoning that South Carolina involuntary manslaughter can be committed with de minimus force and by simply causing injury without using force. Nevertheless, I would hold that South Carolina manslaughter cannot be predicate for the Act because, although the Act’s force clause requires a higher degree of mens rea than recklessness, an individual can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter in South Carolina based on reckless conduct.

United States v. Middleton (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-032-18, 29 pp.) (Gregory, J.) No. 16-7556; Feb. 26, 2018; DSC at Charleston (Duffy, J.) Emily Deck Harrill for Appellant; William Jacob Watkins Jr. for Appellee. 4th Cir.

 


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