Courts wrestle with whether manslaughter is always violent

National News

Once annually, sometimes less, the full federal appeals court in New York meets to confront a perplexing legal question. Most recently, it was to decide whether shooting somebody point-blank in the face and stabbing somebody to death are violent acts.

The 14 judges of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan who heard arguments in U.S. v. Gerald Scott were left to decide how to label the 1998 killings that they agreed were “undoubtedly brutal.”

Ultimately, the full court voted 9-to-5 this week to conclude that Scott’s crimes were indeed violent. But their votes came with a robust debate over a legal puzzle that has vexed multiple federal courts ? even if, they agreed, the answer might seem like common sense.

A lower-court judge had decided that Scott’s convictions' on manslaughter charges ? meant he had not been convicted of a violent crime. He was freed after serving just over 11 years of a 22-year sentence.

The decision did not shock judges who considered the appeal in November in a unique gathering known as an “en banc” meeting of the full 2nd Circuit.

That’s because two laws at stake ? the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Career Offender Sentencing Guideline ? do not define a violent crime by what the defendant actually did. Instead, the crime is defined by the minimum acts someone might have committed and still been convicted of the offense.

In Scott’s case, the lower court judge concluded that manslaughter can be a crime of omission in which no force is used ? if somebody fails to feed someone who dies of starvation or fails to tell someone that their food is poisoned, for example.

A three-judge 2nd Circuit panel later agreed, prompting federal prosecutors to seek the rare full-court proceeding to try to overturn the appeals finding.

The issue had been confronted before in at least two other “en banc” proceedings nationwide and by numerous judges in other court hearings. Still, in various opinions issued Tuesday, the judges in Scott’s case allowed that the question might sound odd to a layperson.

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Texas Adopts Statewide Texting-While-Driving Ban

Effective September 1, 2017, Texas will become the 47th state to pass a statewide ban on texting while driving. Governor Abbott’s signing of House Bill 62 is an effort to unify Texas under a uniform ban and remedy the “patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”

The bill specifically prohibits drivers from reading, writing, or sending an electronic message on a device unless the vehicle is stopped. That includes texting and emailing. It does not, however, prohibit dialing a number to call someone, talking on the phone using a hands-free device, or using the phone’s GPS system.

Violations would be punishable by a fine ranging from $25 to $99, to be set by each municipality. Although penalties could rise to as much as $200 for repeat offenders.

Studies have found that a driver’s reaction time is half as much when a driver is distracted by sending or reading a text message. According to state officials, in 2015 more than 105,000 traffic accidents in Texas involved distracted driving, leading to at least 476 fatalities.

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