It's not everyday that we see a second or successive 2255 petitioner win in the Supreme Court. In United States v. Taylor, No. 20-1459 (June 21, 2022), the Supreme Court held that attempted Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a “crime of violence” under §924(c)(3)(A) because no element of the offense requires proof that the defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use force. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed that it will apply a categorical approach to determine whether a federal felony may serve as a predicate for a conviction and sentence under the elements clause of 924(c)(3)(A), which asks the question whether the federal felony in question “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force.” The relevant inquiry is not how any particular defendant may commit the crime but whether the federal felony at issue always requires the government to prove—beyond a reasonable doubt, as an element of its case—the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force. Further, the Court rejected the government’s two countervailing arguments: (1) the elements clause encompasses not only any offense that qualifies as a “crime of violence” but also any attempt; and (2) the “substantial step” element of attempted Hobbs Act robbery categorically requires it to prove that a defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use physical.
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 of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery and 924(c) under a plea agreement and sentenced to 30 years in prison: 20 years for the Hobbs act conspiracy, and 10 years for the 924(c).
In 2016, the 4th Circuit granted Taylor’s request to file a second or success 2255 motion seeking to vacate his 924(c) conviction, arguing that his conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery did not qualify as a “crime of violence” under the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 120 (2016) (striking the similarly worded residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague). While his motion was pending, the 4th Cir and later Supreme Court held that 924(c)’s residual clause was unconstitutionally vague. United States v. Davis, 129 S. Ct. 2319 (2019). The district court denied relief, holding that conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery was still a crime of violence under 924(c)’s elements clause. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the offense of attempted Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a “crime of violence” under Section § 924(c)(3)(A).
Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh and Barrett. It begins and ends this way:
Does attempted Hobbs Act robbery qualify as a “crime of violence” under 18 U. S. C. § 924(c)(3)(A)? The answer matters because a person convicted of attempted Hobbs Act robbery alone normally faces up to 20 years in prison. But if that offense qualifies as a “crime of violence” under § 924(c)(3)(A), the same individual may face a second felony conviction and years or decades of further imprisonment.
The government quickly abandons the legal theory it advanced in the courts of appeals—and neither of the two new options it auditions [any attempt to commit a qualifying elements offense is a crime of violencebefore us begins to fill the void. In § 924(c)(3)(A), Congress did not condition long prison terms on an abstract judicial inquiry into whether and to what degree this or that crime poses a risk to community peace and safety. Nor did it mandate an empirical inquiry into how crimes are usually committed, let alone impose a burden on the defendant to present proof about the government’s own prosecutorial habits.
Congress tasked the courts with a much more straightforward job: Look at the elements of the underlying crime and ask whether they require the government to prove the use, attempted use, or threatened use of force. Following that direction in this case, the Fourth Circuit correctly recognized that, to convict a defendant of attempted Hobbs Act robbery, the government does not have to prove any of those things. Accordingly, Mr. Taylor may face up to 20 years in prison for violating the Hobbs Act. But he may not be lawfully convicted and sentenced under § 924(c) to still another decade in federal prison. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is Affirmed.
Justices Thomas and Alito filed dissenting opinoins.
The opinion is available here; the oral argument here; and the merits briefing here.