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Paul, Weiss Wins Supreme Court Victory in Pro Bono Case With Important Implications for Criminal Defendants

Paul, Weiss won an important 5-4 Supreme Court victory in Borden v. United States, narrowing the scope of a key part of the primary federal statute imposing mandatory-minimum sentences.

The Armed Career Criminal Act mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for defendants convicted of certain federal offenses who have three prior violent felony convictions. In Borden, the Court determined that a criminal offense committed with a reckless, rather than purposeful or knowing, state of mind does not qualify as a “violent felony” under the Act. Given the many potential predicate offenses involving reckless conduct, the case affects the applicability of the Act’s 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for numerous criminal defendants.

Our pro bono client had three prior convictions for aggravated assault—one of them involving reckless conduct—before his conviction for possession of a firearm, which the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Relevant here, an offense qualifies as a “violent felony” under the ACCA if it involves “the use … of physical force against the person of another.” We argued that the Sixth Circuit erred in affirming our client’s sentence, because the mental state of recklessness does not involve the intent necessary to satisfy the requirement of using force “against the person of another.” We also argued that including reckless offenses would distort the meaning of “violent felony” to encompass a slew of everyday offenses, such as hitting a police officer by swinging open a door while drunk.

In her plurality opinion, Justice Elena Kagan agreed, concluding that the phrase “against the person of another” encompasses only a purposeful or knowing mental state. She added that treating reckless offenses as violent felonies “would impose large sentencing enhancements on individuals (for example, reckless drivers) far afield from the ‘armed career criminals’ ACCA addresses.” In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas concluded that “a crime that can be committed through mere recklessness does not have as an element the ‘use of physical force.’” The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit and remanded.

The Paul, Weiss team was led by litigation partner Kannon Shanmugam and included litigation associates Stacie Fahsel, Nicholas Handler, Samuel Prose, Amanda Valerio and Alexander Jones.

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