Published on: Tuesday, December 7, 2021

If a person attempts to commit a robbery but does not succeed, is the attempt alone a “crime of violence”? On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will delve into that question in United States v. Taylor, the latest in a string of cases asking the justices to narrow federal definitions of violent crimes (article available here).

In 2003, Justin Eugene Taylor sold marijuana in Richmond, Virginia. He and an accomplice planned to steal money from Martin Silvester, a prospective buyer. After meeting Silvester in an alley, the accomplice pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and tried to take Silvester’s cash while Taylor waited nearby in a getaway car. Silvester resisted, and the accomplice fatally shot him. Taylor and the accomplice fled the scene, having failed to collect Silvester’s money.

Six years later, the federal government prosecuted Taylor. He was convicted under a plea agreement and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Taylor now challenges part of that conviction and seeks a reduced sentence.

Taylor is contesting his conviction under Section 924(c), which accounts for one-third of his 30-year sentence. The government defends the conviction by arguing that Taylor used a gun in connection with an attempted robbery under the Hobbs Act. The parties do not dispute that Taylor used a gun. Nor do they dispute that Taylor committed attempted robbery under the Hobbs Act. They very much dispute, however, whether attempted robbery under the Hobbs Act meets Section 924(c)’s definition of “crime of violence.” The district court sided with the government, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (in a decision that created a split with three other circuits) sided with Taylor.

Taylor argues that attempted Hobbs Act robbery contains two elements: an intent to commit a robbery that would (if completed) qualify under the Hobbs Act, and at least one “substantial step” toward committing that robbery. The substantial step, he notes, need not involve violence or the threat of violence. For instance, merely casing a store without violence might satisfy the “substantial step” element.