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4th Cir.: NC voluntary manslaughter requires volition

Federal law permitted harsher sentencing for a defendant’s drug crimes because his prior conviction for voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina qualified as a “violent felony” under the applicable statute.

In sentencing Appellant Antoine Smith for drug-possession convictions, the district court applied the enhanced penalties of the Armed Career Criminal Act at 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), based in part on Smith’s prior conviction for voluntary manslaughter. Smith appealed on grounds that voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina does not qualify as a violent felony under the Act because it can be committed through mere negligence or recklessness.

To determine whether a prior conviction qualifies as a “violent felony” for purposes of the Act, the court looks to the elements of the crime of conviction, rather than to the defendant’s actual conduct. Voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina is “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice, express or implied, and without premeditation and deliberation.” It occurs when one kills intentionally but does so in the heat of passion suddenly aroused by adequate provocation, or in the exercise of self-defense where excessive force is utilized or the defendant is the aggressor.

The fact that North Carolina treats voluntary manslaughter as a lesser crime than second-degree murder does not mean that voluntary manslaughter criminalizes conduct that is merely negligent. Basically, what separates voluntary manslaughter from murder is not  absence of intent but rather the circumstances in which that intent is exercised – namely, in the heat of passion or under provocation. North Carolina courts have stated that voluntary manslaughter is essentially a first-degree murder where the defendant’s reason is temporarily suspended by legally adequate provocation. Pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter thus entails acknowledging that one’s conduct was not justified by the affirmative defenses that would normally result in acquittal.

The Act’s definition of the term “violent felony” is nearly identical to the definition of “crime of violence” found at 18 U.S.C. § 16. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted § 16 to require a higher mens rea than merely accidental or negligent conduct. This comparison makes clear that “use” in the Act’s force clause requires volitional force, as does North Carolina’s crime of voluntary manslaughter.

Simply put, voluntary manslaughter in North Carolina requires an intentional killing. It thus plainly involves “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another,” as required to apply the Act’s enhanced penalties.


United States v. Smith, Case No. 17-4015, Feb. 15, 2018. 4th Cir. (Wilkinson) from MDNC at Greensboro (Eagles). John David Bryson for Appellant; JoAnna Gibson McFadden for Appellee. VLW No. 018-2-028, 6 pp.

VLW 018-2-028