An offense with a mens rea of recklessness does not qualify as a violent felony under the Armed Career
Criminal Act (ACCA).
In Borden v. United States, 593 U.S. ___ (2021), the Supreme Court held that an offense is not a “violent felony” under the ACCA’s elements clause (18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B)(i)) if it only requires a mens rea of recklessness. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/19-5410_8nj9.pdf
Charles Borden pleaded guilty to being a felon-in-possession of a firearm (18 U.S.C. §922(g)) and the government sought an enhanced sentence under the ACCA. Mr. Borden’s Tennessee conviction for reckless aggravated assault was used as one of the three predicates for the ACCA enhancement. That crime is defined as recklessly committing an assault and either causing serious bodily injury to another or using or displaying a deadly weapon. Slip Op. at 3.
Mr. Borden argued in district court that the offense was not a violent felony under the ACCA’s elements clause because a conviction could be based on a reckless mental state. He contended that “only purposeful or knowing conduct” met the ACCA’s elements clause requirement for the use of force “against the person of another.” Slip Op. at 3. The district court held that reckless offenses qualified as violent felonies and the Sixth Circuit affirmed citing United States v. Verwiebe, 874 F.3d 258 (6th Cir. 2017).
An offense is a violent felony under the ACCA’s elements clause if it “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B)(i). Writing for a plurality in Borden, Justice Kagan explained that the “critical context here is the language that ‘against another’ modifies—the ‘use of physical force’” and the ‘“use of force’ denotes volitional conduct.” Slip Op. at 9. Thus, the ACCA’s elements clause “covers purposeful and knowing acts, but excludes reckless conduct[.]” Id. at 10.
The Borden plurality distinguished Voisine v. United States, 579 U.S. 686 (2016) because of the textual difference between the statute at issue in that case and the ACCA’s elements clause. Slip Op. at 21. The ACCA’s elements clause mens rea requirement “does not come from the word ‘use.’” Id. Rather, it comes from the phrase “against the person of another” which is the ‘“critical’ text for deciding the level of mens rea needed.” Id. at 21-22. Such an offense “do[es] not require, as ACCA does, the active employment of force against another person.” Slip Op. at 23. Since Mr. Borden’s ACCA enhancement was based on an offense that required a mens rea of recklessness, the judgment of conviction was reversed.
Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment. He found that Mr. Borden’s reckless aggravated assault conviction was not encompassed in the ACCA’s elements clause. In his view, a reckless crime “does not have as an element the ‘use of physical force’ because that phrase ‘has a well-understood meaning applying only to intentional acts designed to cause harm.’” Thomas, J., concurring in judgment at 2.
Justice Thomas noted that Mr. Borden’s reckless aggravated assault conviction would have fallen within the ACCA’s residual clause which was held to be unconstitutionally vague in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591, 597 (2015). Thomas, J., concurring in judgment at 2. Although Justice Thomas believed Johnson was wrongly decided, id., at 3, he followed its precedent. Id. at 5.
In dissent, Justice Kavanaugh argued that “the ordinary meaning of the statutory phrase ‘use of physical force against the person of another’—just like the phrase ‘use of physical force’—encompasses reckless offenses.”
Congratulations to AFPDs Erin Rust and Jennifer Coffin and the rest of the Borden team for their superb work in Borden.