Eleventh Circuit Upholds Sentence for Shooting Handgun at Helicopter – U.S. v. McGuire

February 6, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

Under federal law, certain crimes are defined as “crimes of violence” for sentencing purposes. Though this may sound unimportant, avoiding a conviction for a crime of violence is an important part of a criminal defense attorney’s job, because such a conviction triggers a harsher sentence and can lengthen sentences for any future convictions. That’s likely one reason for the appeal in U.S. v. McGuire, a recent opinion from the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Jason McGuire of central Florida shot one bullet from a handgun in the direction of a police helicopter. On that basis, a jury convicted him of attempting to damage an aircraft, and the judge determined that this was a crime of violence. In an opinion authored by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, sitting by designation, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed both the sentence and the conviction.

McGuire became depressed after losing both his girlfriend and his job. Drunk and unhappy, he took his father’s loaded revolver from an unlocked safe into the driveway. After placing several phone calls but not being able to find a ride, McGuire decided he couldn’t face suicide and instead fired several shots down the street and into a nearby tree. Neighbors called the police, and McGuire went back inside. When he left the house again, he found officers on the ground and a police helicopter in the air, shining a spotlight on him. McGuire fired toward the helicopter. McGuire claimed at trial that he fired the shot randomly, without realizing the helicopter was there; witnesses disagreed about whether he fired in its direction, but agreed it was hard to miss. The jury found him guilty and the judge determined that firing at an aircraft is a crime of violence.

This appeal followed, but the Eleventh Circuit found that a reasonable jury could have found McGuire guilty. Among the witnesses was a sheriff’s deputy who testified that he saw McGuire shoot directly at the helicopter’s spotlight, and the jury was entitled to believe him, the court said. Though McGuire claims this was unreasonable because the helicopter was moving and his arm was not, the court found that this doesn’t require an inference that he wasn’t trying to hit the helicopter—just that he wasn’t successful. The court took more time to reject his argument that shooting at the helicopter was not a crime of violence. To be a crime of violence, a crime must have as an element the use of force or involves a risk of the use of force. McGuire argued that it is possible for non-violent conduct to fall under the law, but the court disagreed, saying harm to crew and passengers is a likely consequence even of disabling an aircraft in flight. At the minimum, the court said, it involves a risk of force, and thus may be a crime of violence.

Some of the rules applied in this opinion seem to considerably broaden the definition of “crime of violence” as ordinary people understand it. For example, the opinion mentions in passing that burglary is a crime of violence because there is a risk that the burglars might commit violence against someone who interrupts them. This seems to be easily extended to all kinds of laws; is there a good chance, for example, that someone might commit violence if interrupted during shoplifting or passing a bad check? I would advocate for a different standard. That’s particularly true when you consider that the sentence enhancement adds 5 to 10 years to the sentence, depending on how a firearm was used in the crime.

If you’re facing criminal charges in Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A., for help building a strong defense. We know police don’t stop making arrests just because business hours are over, so we take client phone calls 24 hours a day and seven days a week. To tell us your story and learn more about how we can help, contact us through our website or call toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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