Criminal Law Summaries

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CARJACKING - REQUIRED INTENT

Case: Holloway v. United States

Issue: Whether the phrase "with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm" in 18 U.S.C. §2119, the federal "carjacking" statute (which prohibits taking a motor vehicle which has been shipped in interstate commerce from the person or presence of another by force and violence or intimidation "with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm") requires the Government to prove that a defendant had an unconditional intent to kill or harm, or whether the Government need merely prove a conditional intent, that is, an intent to kill or harm if necessary to accomplish the carjacking. "More precisely, the question is whether a person who points a gun at a driver, having decided to pull the trigger if the driver does not comply with a demand for the car keys, possess the intent, at that moment, to seriously harm the driver?"

Facts: Petitioner Holloway was convicted of three counts of carjacking, in addition to several other offenses related to stealing cars. In each of the carjackings, Holloway and his accomplice threatened to shoot the driver with a gun unless the driver relinquished the car and keys. Although the accomplice testified that he would have used the gun if any of the drivers had given him a "hard time," only one of the victims even hesitated in handing over the keys. Holloway punched the hesitant driver in the face, but that was the extent of the violence.

The trial court instructed the jury in relevant part that the Government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the carjacking was committed with the intent "to cause death or serious bodily harm to the person from whom the car was taken." The judge further explained that while using a gun to frighten a victim does not prove such intent, "[i]n some cases, intent is conditional. That is, a defendant may intend to engage in certain conduct only if a certain event occurs. In this case, the government contends that the defendant intended to cause death or serious bodily harm if the alleged victims had refused to turn over their cars. If you find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had such an intent, the government has satisfied this element of the offense. . . ."

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the concept of conditional intent was a long-recognized one that Congress would have been aware of in enacting the statute. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to settle a conflict in the Circuits.

Holding: "The intent requirement of §2119 is satisfied when the Government proves that at the moment the defendant demanded or took control over the driver's automobile the defendant possessed the intent to seriously harm or kill the driver if necessary to steal the car (or, alternatively, if unnecessary to steal the car)."

Reasoning: Justice Stevens, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, identified two "species" of intent: conditional and unconditional. Holloway argued that a defendant must have a specific and unconditional intent to kill or harm in order to possess the mens rea required by the carjacking statute. He insisted that Congress would have inserted the words "if necessary" to the phrase "with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm" had it intended to include the conditional species of intent. The Court disagreed, reasoning that Congress intended to criminalize "a broader scope of conduct" than attempted assault or murder during car robberies (or the taking of a car only in the event of an intent to harm or kill the driver under all conditions). The Court also thought that focusing too much on the attempt to harm or kill the driver converted the mens rea requirement of the statute into an actus reus component. The carjacking statute was aimed at providing a federal penalty for car robbery when the defendant possessed a particular mens rea at the moment he demanded or took control of the car. Congress's purpose was to provide a deterrent against carjacking, and the Court held that such a purpose was better served by a broader interpretation that included both species of intent. Additionally, the Court presumed that Congress was aware, when it enacted the statute, of cases and commentary recognizing that "the 'specific intent' to commit a wrongful act may be conditional."

Other Opinions: Justices Scalia dissented, maintaining that the Court's interpretation of the clear statutory language and the very meaning of intent was absurd. Even assuming an ambiguous statute, however, the rule of lenity in criminal cases requires a construction resolving the ambiguity in Holloway's favor. Moreover, the use of the word intent to encompass the concept of conditional intent has in no way, contrary to the majority's suggestion, achieved "term of art" status in criminal law. Justice Thomas also dissented noting that the authority for the view that specific intent to commit an act may be conditional was not part of a well-established historical tradition when Congress amended the carjacking statute.

Comment: This is another case placing in stark contrast the strong textualistic approach to interpretation of Justices Scalia and Thomas and the more pragmatic view of the rest of the Court.

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