Posted On: June 15, 2011 by Mark A. Eskenazi

High Speed Chases: Shifting Gears at Sentencing

US Supreme Court: Marcus Sykes v. US

OJ Simpson made history with his televised low speed chase. Marcus Sykes opted for the more traditional high speed chase when police in Indiana tried to pull him over for driving without headlights. Rather than comply, Sykes hit the accelerator and “wove through traffic, drove on the wrong side of the road and through yards containing bystanders, passed through a fence and struck the rear of a house. Then he fled on foot. He was found only with the aid of a police dog.” Mad Marcus was convicted of “vehicular flight,” a violation of Indiana’s “’resisting law enforcement’ law.”

Speed ahead a little. Mr. Sykes subsequently pleads guilty to possession of a firearm after an attempted gunpoint robbery. He gets an enhanced sentence of 188 months because he has 3 previous violent felony convictions. This appeal follows sentencing. While conceding 2 of the 3 felonies were violent, Sykes says the chase described above (the third felony relied upon to enhance his sentence) was not violent, just a felony.

The District Court thought the vehicle flight was a violent felony under Indiana law. So too did the Court of Appeals. Federal law holds in part, that an offense is deemed a violent felony for sentencing purposes, if it “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Sykes claimed his driving posed no such risk.

According to the Supremes, however, “Risk of violence is inherent to vehicle flight.” Since flight invites and “even demands” chase by law enforcement, and chase invites even greater incentive to flee, the risk of violence increases with speed and time in pursuit. As Justice Thomas noted in his separate opinion, “chase-related crashes kill more than 100 nonsuspects every year.” So who has the right of way?

The court refused to yield: “Serious and substantial risks are an inherent part of vehicle flight.” All Sykes had to do was look out his window and see that he was driving through back yards.

It was the end of the road for Marcus Sykes. “Felony vehicle flight is a violent felony” and his enhanced sentence was affirmed.

Let’s just say Marcus drove a hard bargain.

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