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Seventh Circuit Reverses Convictions Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); Holds Underlying Offenses Do Not Qualify as ‘Crimes of Violence’

by Matt Clarke 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the convictions of two federal prisoners who had been found guilty of using and discharging firearms during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). In doing so, the Court held that the underlying offenses of kidnapping, making a ransom demand, and being a felon in possession of a firearm, violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1201, 875(a), and 922(g)(l), respectively, do not qualify categorically as crimes of violence under § 924(c). 

Lindani Mzembe, Ivan Brazier, and Derek Fields attacked a man as he approached his car, which was parked in front of his house. They beat him with their pistols and demanded money, accidentally shooting him in the arm in the process. They used duct tape to bind, blindfold, and gag him; tossed him into a car; and drove him to Brazier’s house. They continued to pistol-whip him and demand money.

The man called his sister, who delivered about $3,000 collected from friends, to a nearby house. Brazier continued to beat the man while the others collected the money. They decided it was not enough and forced the man to call his sister again.

During the phone call, the man had trouble breathing because he had suffered a broken nose during the beating. One kidnapper noticed this and vocalized concern that he might die there. The man began “breathing funny” on purpose. This eventually unnerved the kidnappers. They dumped him in an alley.

All three men were indicted for kidnapping, demanding a ransom, being felons in possession of firearms, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.

Mzembe and Fields were convicted of all charges while Brazier was convicted only of the kidnapping and ransom charges. Brazier, Mzembe, and Fields received total sentences of 444, 528, and 656 months, respectively. The latter two included mandatory 120-month consecutive sentences for possessing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. 

The men did not appeal the underlying convictions for kidnapping, demanding a ransom, or being a felon in possession of a firearm but raised sentencing issues and challenges to the two men’s § 924(c) convictions. 

The Seventh Circuit noted that, under § 924(c), an underlying offense qualified as a “crime of violence” if it “has an element of the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another,”§ 924(c)(3)(A), or “by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” § 924(c)(3)(B).

However, in United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), the Supreme Court held that the residual clause’s definition of “crime of violence” in § 924(c)(3)(B) is unconstitutionally vague. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the § 924(c) convictions could only be upheld if the underlying offenses required violence against a person or property as an element of the offense. In other words, if there was any method by which the crime could be committed without using violence, the convictions had to be reversed, regardless of the actual facts of the underlying crimes. 

The Seventh Circuit had previously held that kidnapping and demanding a ransom do not categorically qualify as crimes of violence under § 924(c). United States v. Jenkins, 849 F.3d 390 (7th Cir. 2017). Because the conviction could have had an effect on the sentences for the other charges, the Court upheld Brazier’s sentence and reversed all of the sentences of Mzembe and Fields, remanding their cases for resentencing. See: United States v. Brazier, 933 F.3d 796 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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