Fred Somers v. United States of America, SC21-1407

– Summary by Priya Geer

On November 17, 2022, the Supreme Court of Florida considered whether the first
element of Florida’s assault statute, section 784.011(1) of the Florida Statutes requires specific
intent to direct a threat at another person and if not, what mens rea requirement is needed to
prove the first element of assault. The Florida Supreme Court held that the assault statute cannot
be violated without a specific intent to direct action at another person.

This question arose after Fred Somers filed for an appeal of his 211-month sentence for
possessing a firearm as a convicted felon (in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) and having four
prior “violent felony” convictions. The district court gave him enhanced penalties under the
Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). Somers argued that his prior
conviction of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon was not a “violent felony” under the
ACCA since it did not satisfy the mens rea needed since it could be committed recklessly. The
Eleventh Circuit initially affirmed the district court’s denial based on precedent from Turner v.
Warden Coleman FCI, 709 F.3d 1328, 1337-38 (11th Cir. 2013) that Florida aggravated assault
was a “violent felony” since it had an intentional and unlawful threat “to do violence” to the
person of another. However, Somers filed a petition for rehearing and while it was still pending
the United States Supreme Court held in Borden v. United States, 141 S. Ct. 1817, 1821-22, 1834
(2021) that a crime that requires only a mens rea of recklessness does not qualify as a “violent
felony”. The Eleventh Circuit granted the rehearing and asked the Florida Supreme Court to
consider if the first element of assault requires specific intent and if it does not what mens rea
requirement is needed.

The Florida Supreme Court rephrased the question to consider whether the first element
of the assault statute requires specific intent to direct the prohibited action at another. It looked at
the plain language of the statute defining “assault” as an “intentional, unlawful threat by word or
act to do violence the person of another…” The plain language of the statute confirmed the
Somers court holding that assault requires a “specific intent” to direct action at another. The
Court then looked at various definitions of “threat” and “violence” in dictionaries. All definitions
involved a specific type of conduct and an “expression’ of intent. The Florida Supreme Court
reasoned that under section 784.011(1) an assault cannot be committed by a reckless act under
Florida law. The Court held that an actor needs to direct the threat at another person and returned
the case back to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.