News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Holds Retaliation Against Witness Is Not a Crime of Violence for Purposes of 924(c)

This case arose out of the Johnson v. United States litigation that has been going on since 2015. After Johnson, Aaron Bowen filed a motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that his predicate conviction for witness retaliation was not a crime of violence for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The case was stayed pending the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Davis, ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), where the Supreme Court recently held the residual clause of Section 924(c) is void for vagueness.

The Tenth Circuit’s decision in Mr. Bowen’s case had several important holdings:

First, that Davis is a new substantive rule that is retroactively applicable on collateral review.

Second, that Mr. Bowen’s convictions for witness retaliation do not qualify as crimes of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(A).

Third, that Mr. Bowen is actually innocent of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)—because his predicate conviction does not fall under the force clause of 924(c), and the residual clause was invalidated by Davis.

ANALYSIS OF FORCE AGAINST PROPERTY

The key takeaway is that force against property is analyzed differently from force against persons for purposes of the 924(c) force clause.  Recall that, unlike its ACCA counterpart, the elements clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) encompasses crimes that have as an element the use of physical force against not just people, but also other people’s property. After cases like Stokeling v United States and United States v Ontiveros, almost any force that causes bodily injury is enough to qualify under the force clause. This case, however, required the circuit to decide for the first time how much force is necessary to satisfy the statute when the force is directed at property.

The predicate crime here was federal retaliation against a witness, 18 U.S.C. § 1513(b)(2). A defendant may be convicted of that offense if either (1) with intent to retaliate, he knowingly causes or threatens to cause bodily injury to a witness or (2) knowingly causes or threatens to cause damage to a witness’s property. The Tenth Circuit concluded that witness retaliation through bodily injury qualifies as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)’s elements clause, but witness retaliation through property damage does not.

Although the underlying facts of Mr. Bowen’s predicate conviction encompassed actual force against persons and property, under the well-worn categorical approach, we all know that the facts don’t matter. In other words, to determine whether Bowen’s witness retaliation conviction has “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of [violent] force against the person or property of another,” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(A), courts must look “only to the fact of conviction and the statutory definition of the prior offense, and do not generally consider the particular facts disclosed by the record of conviction.” United States v Serafin, 562 F.3d 1105, 1107–08 (10th Cir. 2009).

A Sixth Circuit case, United States v Edwards, 321 F. App’x 481 (6th Cir. 2009), demonstrated that the federal witness retaliation could be satisfied by spray-painting a car. Citing to Moncrieffe v. Holder, the Circuit explained that the salient question was whether spray-painting a witness’s car qualifies as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)’s elements clause. 569 U.S. 184, 190–91 (2013) (“[W]e must presume that the conviction rested upon nothing more than the least of the acts criminalized, and then determine whether even those acts are encompassed by [§ 924(c)(3)’s elements clause].”).

Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit agreed with Mr. Bowen that property “crimes of violence” under § 924(c)(3)(A) are those that include “violent force,” not merely those that “injure property.” Spray painting a car did not rise to the level of “violent force,” and so Mr. Bowen’s predicate conviction was not a crime of violence.

The decision was over a dissent by Judge McHugh, and also creates a split with the Second Circuit. See United States v Hill, 890 F.3d 51, 58 (2d Cir. 2018).

KEY TAKEAWAY

Force against property for purposes of 924(c)’s force clause requires violent force against property—mere property damage (such as spray-painting a car) does not satisfy the force clause. The Tenth Circuit didn’t elaborate on what sorts of offenses against property would qualify, but explained only that mere damage to property isn’t enough.

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming