81 F.3d 62 (7th Cir. 1996), 95-3069, United States v. Fife

Docket Nº:95-3069.
Citation:81 F.3d 62
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Dewitt H. FIFE, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:April 08, 1996
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Page 62

81 F.3d 62 (7th Cir. 1996)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Dewitt H. FIFE, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 95-3069.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 8, 1996

Argued Feb. 9, 1996.

Page 63

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, No. 95-CR-32; Rudolph T. Randa, Judge.

Mel S. Johnson (argued), Office of the United States Attorney, Milwaukee, WI, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Thomas J. Flanagan (argued), Brookfield, WI, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before POSNER, Chief Judge, and DIANE P. WOOD and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

TERENCE T. EVANS, Circuit Judge.

Once upon a time, the names of crimes were descriptive of the underlying criminal conduct they defined. One did not need a law degree to have a fairly good idea about what it meant to be convicted of robbery, burglary, murder, or grand theft auto. Today, however, even a law degree doesn't necessarily ensure that one will know precisely what the underlying conduct was that supports convictions for things like "racketeering" and "continuing criminal enterprise." Today we consider an Illinois law that penalizes "armed violence," a title that conjures up a multitude of images. What does it mean and how is a federal court to interpret it in applying federal sentencing laws?

Dewitt Fife was charged with various offenses in a 17-count indictment. He resolved his case by pleading guilty to three counts: conspiracy, a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and a charge of participating in the sale of a firearm without complying with the legal obligations imposed on gun dealers. The essence of the charges was that Fife, a convicted felon, brokered the illegal sale of firearms between a licensed gun dealer and buyers using fake identification.

At sentencing Fife was found to be an "armed career criminal" under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). The finding catapulted him out of the normal criminal history categories established by the federal sentencing guidelines and into a separate status reserved for defendants determined to be particularly dangerous. To earn the armed career criminal sobriquet, a defendant must have three prior convictions for "violent felonies" on his record. Fife concedes that he has two qualifying convictions--one for burglary in 1980 and another for aggravated arson in 1983--but he denies that he has a third. The district court found that a 1989 Illinois conviction for "armed violence" was the third, and that put Fife over the top and into the armed career criminal category.

Section 924(e) provides that any person who violates § 922(g)--that is, anyone convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm as Fife was--who has three previous convictions for "violent" felonies or serious drug offenses faces a minimum sentence of 15 years. A violent felony means any felony (i.e., any crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year) that

-- has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another, or

-- is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

The question we must answer is whether "armed violence" under Illinois law, 720 ILCS 5/33A-2, is a crime that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." Whether an offense falls under the "otherwise" clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) is an issue of law which we review de novo. United States v. Davis, 16 F.3d 212 (7th Cir.1994), cert. denied, --- S.Ct. ----, 115 S.Ct. 354, 130 L.Ed.2d 309 (1994).

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In determining whether a particular crime is a violent felony, a sentencing court's inquiry is limited to the elements of the crime involved; the court is not free to look at the underlying facts of a particular case to see if the conduct was, in fact, violent. Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 (1990).

Taylor recognizes an exception to this categorical approach with regard to convictions for offenses which can be committed in various ways when some of those ways would be violent and others would not. The Taylor exception is not relied on by the...

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