This summer, the United States Supreme Court made some important decisions that will change the future of federal law for the country. Some of these decisions, including the ruling that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional, were covered extensively media outlets across the country, while others, like the decision in Johnson v. United States, went relatively unnoticed by the general public. However, the Johnson decision may greatly impact past and future sentences for people convicted of crimes in federal court across the country.
The ACCA Residual Clause
In Johnson v. United States, the Court was asked to determine whether the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is constitutional. The Armed Career Criminal Act, or ACCA, is a federal criminal law that dramatically increases a person’s sentence for possession of a firearm by a felon (which is a federal crime) when the defendant has three or more previous convictions for a “violent felony.” Under ACCA, such defendants must receive at least a mandatory minimum 15 year sentence and can receive up to life in prison.
The question before the Court was whether the term “violent felony” was defined with enough specificity. Under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution, criminal laws must “give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes” and must not be “so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” Laws that fail this test are deemed unconstitutionally “vague.”
The law defined the term “violent felony” to include, among other things, “burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious risk of physical injury to another.” The Court focused on the last clause (the italicized portion), which has become known as the “residual clause” of ACCA. And it ultimately held that this residual clause was too vague to satisfy the requirements of due process.
Johnson and the Residual Clause
The defendant, Samuel Johnson, had been accused of planning to attack the Mexican consulate in Minnesota as well as progressive bookstores in the area. Johnson had several felony convictions on his record, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The Government then requested an enhanced sentence under ACCA, arguing that three of Johnson’s prior convictions—including unlawful possession of a short-barrel shotgun—qualified as “violent felonies.” The Government argued that possession of a shot-barrel shotgun constituted “conduct that presents a serious risk of physical injury to another,” and therefore fell under the residual clause of ACCA.
Johnson argued both that mere possession of a short-barrel shotgun was not inherently dangerous and that the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague. After detailing the Court’s many attempts to interpret the residual clause in past cases and finding that these rules simply do not provide any clear guidelines, the Court agreed with Johnson’s vagueness argument and struck down the residual clause of ACCA.
Impacts of Johnson
This is an important ruling for criminal defendants and criminal defense lawyers.
First, limiting ACCA’s requirement of a 15 year mandatory minimum sentence (and up to life) to clearly-defined situations is important for defendants to know what sentence they may receive if they plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Second, the Court’s discussion of vagueness and the corresponding requirements of the Due Process Clause that laws must give “fair notice” of what conduct applies to cases involving allegations of fraud and other so-called white collar crimes as well as allegations of bribery and other political or public corruption offenses.
For example, the Seventh Circuit recently overturned a few convictions of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich because he may have been convicted for “logrolling,” (trading one political act for another). Invoking the vagueness concept, the Seventh Circuit noted, “It would be more than a little surprising to Members of Congress if the Judiciary found . . . everyday politics criminal.” Thus, the Supreme Court’s analysis in Johnson may help Raleigh white collar defense lawyers defend their clients.
Contact Your Attorney
At Cheshire, Parker, Schneider & Bryan, we represent anyone who has been charged with criminal activity, including persons who have been charged for possessing a firearm with a felony record. To discuss your case and your legal options for defense, contact a Raleigh criminal defense lawyer at CPSB today.