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Fourth Circuit: Bodily Injury Sentence Enhancement for Robbery Inapplicable Where Victim Sustained ‘Momentary’ Injury and Sought ‘Precautionary’ Medical Treatment

by Jacob Barrett

TheU.S.CourtofAppeals for theFourthCircuitruledadistrictcourtcannot simply“guess”that a victim suffered a qualifying “bodily injury” in connection with a robbery to trigger the two-level, bodily injury sentence enhancement under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) § 2B3.1(b)(3)(A).

MelvinThomasLewisandtwoothersrobbedapawnshop.Lewisstruckthe managerinthebackoftheheadthreetimes,causinghimtofalltothefloor.Thepoliceobserveda“redspot”onthebackofthemanager’s head, and he stated that he felt “dizzy.” He was taken to the hospital for observation. However, there was no visible wound, blood, laceration, or medical record showing that he suffered a significant injury.

Lewis pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commitHobbs Act robbery and brandishing a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. The Presentence Investigation Report recommended a two-level enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(3)(A) because a victim sustained bodily injury. Lewisobjected to the enhancement, arguing that the injury must be “significant” for it to apply. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina rejected Lewis’ argument and determined the sentence enhancement is applicable, stating that in light of the “type of violence” involved, the court “guess[ed]” that the manager sustained a “mild concussion” and that he simply “has to have an injury that caused him to seek medical attention, and he did.” The court sentenced him to 130 months’ imprisonment. Lewis appealed, arguing that his sentence is procedurally unreasonable because the court erroneously applied the bodily injury enhancement.

The Court began its analysis by discussing the bodily injury enhancement under § 2B3.1(b)(3)(A). Guidelines commentary defines “bodily injury” as “any significant injury.” § 1B1.1 cmt. n.1(B). Significant injury isn’t defined, but the commentary provides two nonexhaustive examples: “an injury that is painful and obvious,” or an injury “of a type for which medical attention ordinarily would be sought.” Id.

The Fourth Circuit examined the meaning of “significant injury” in United States v. Lancaster, 6 F.3d 208 (4th 1993). The Lancaster Court instructed that a significant injury “need not interfere completely with the injured person’s life,” but it “cannot be wholly trivial.” Additionally, while it “need not last for months or years,” it “must last for some meaningful period,” i.e., “momentary [injuries] with no lasting effects … are not ‘significant.’” Lancaster. Finally, “precautionary” medical treatment is “not the type of ‘medical attention’ that the Guidelines contemplate as being sought after significant injuries.” Id.

In Lancaster, the defendant sprayed mace into the eyes of the victim, which “stunned” him and “caused severe burning in his eyes and cheeks.” He was examined by an optometrist “as a precautionary measure,” but there was no evidence that the mace resulted in any lasting health problems. The Lancaster Court “had no trouble” concluding that the injury was not significant, explaining that the medical attention was merely precautionary and the burning sensation, while unpleasant, was only momentary and didn’t result in lasting harm. The Lancaster Court contrasted the victim’s injuries with those suffered by the victim in United States v. Isaacs, 947 F.2d 112 (4th Cir. 1991), where the victim suffered a blow to the face that resulted in it being “red and puffy and his ears to ring for hours.”

In the current case, the Court summed up the significant injury standard of Lancaster as requiring “the Government at least to demonstrate that a victim’s injuries lasted for a meaningful period and were more than wholly trivial.” The Court explained that the standard is satisfied if the victim’s injuries are either “painful and obvious” or “of a type for which medical attention ordinarily would be sought.” § 1B1.1 cmt. n.1(B).

After reviewing the district court’s statements at sentencing, the Court ruled that it erred in applying the bodily injury enhancement. The district court failed to determine whether the manager’s injuries lasted for a “meaningful period,” the Court stated. Nor did the court determine whether the injuries at issue were of the type one would ordinarily seek medical attention. Instead, the court determined that “this kind of an assault would ordinarily cause an injury that you would seek medical attention.” However, the Court explained that the defendant’s conduct is not relevant for this analysis; it’s the injury suffered that’s the focus of the inquiry.

The district court also based its decision on its belief that a victim “just has to have an injury that caused him to seek medical attention” to trigger the enhancement. But again, the Court stated that’s not the standard since purely precautionary medical treatment doesn’t satisfy the significant injury standard of Lancaster. The district court also erroneously stated that going to the hospital to have an injury “checked out” or “looked at” is sufficient for application of the enhancement. Thus, the Court held that the district court erred in applying the bodily injury enhancement.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Lewis’ sentence and remanded for resentencing. See: United States v. Lewis, 18 F.4th 743 (4th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Lewis

 

 

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