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“Vague” Portion of Armed Career Criminal Act Struck Down

On Behalf of | Jul 1, 2015 | Federal Criminal Law

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court held that the “residual phrase” of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which provides a five-year increase in imprisonment for crimes involving conduct that presents a serious risk of physical injury, is unconstitutional. This decision was announced in the case of Johnson v. United States.

What is the Armed Career Criminal Act?

The Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924, is a federal law that mandates sentencing enhancements for felons who commit crimes utilizing firearms after three or more convictions for certain significant offenses. Essentially, it is the federal equivalent of a three strikes law.

The act increases the ten year sentence originally proscribed under the Gun Control Act to a fifteen year minimum if the felon has three or more convictions for “violent felonies” or “serious” drug crimes. Violent felonies are defined in the “residual clause” to include felonies that involve burglary, arson, extortion, the use of explosives, or consist of “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

What Happened in Johnson?

The Court has long struggled with the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). This provision has been challenged previously regarding whether or not a conviction in state court meets the definition of “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

In this case, Samuel Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Based on Johnson’s extensive criminal history, the government requested an enhanced sentence of fifteen years pursuant to the ACCA. Specifically, the government argued that Johnson’s previous conviction in Minnesota state court for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun qualified as a violent felony, and as such, would trigger the enhanced sentence.

What Did the Court Say?

The Court found the residual clause violated the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution because it was too vague to give ordinary people fair notice of what conduct is criminal.

When previously analyzing the residual clause of the ACCA, the court bound themselves to approach the question categorically, meaning it will only look to how the crime is defined and not take into account any special circumstances about how the crime was committed in particular circumstances. For example, when previously asked whether New Mexico’s crime of Driving Under the Influence qualified as a violent felony under the residual clause, the Court looked to the elements of the offense, not to the detailed account of how the petitioner in that case committed the crime. Essentially, under the categorical approach, the Court will look to the “ordinary case” of how the crime would be committed, not the underlying circumstances of how it was committed in a specific case.

After employing the categorical approach, the Court ruled the “residual” clause vague for two reasons. First, by employing the categorical approach judges must use their imaginations as to what an “ordinary case” would be. As such, this does not provide a clear rubric of how to estimate the risk posed by a particular crime and judicial opinion about what an ordinary case is will vary among justices.

Second, even if the justices could imagine a pure ordinary case, they have no specific mechanism to determine how much risk is necessary for a crime to qualify as a violent felony.

The Court’s inability to determine if the crime questioned poses a risk and subsequent inability to determine if that risk is serious enough to qualify as violent renders the residual clause too vague to be understood by capable legal minds, much less ordinary individuals.

What Now?

If you are facing federal charges and you have previously been convicted of a felony, it is crucial to have an experienced criminal attorney to help you protect your future.Contact George Hildebrant, Attorney at Law, to help you protect your constitutional rights today.