Supreme Court’s Rare Decision That Found Part of Law Used to Impose Harsh Mandatory Sentences Unconstitutional

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled a part of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA), which enables sentencing enhancements for “violent felonies,” unconstitutional because it is vague, requires “guesswork,” and denies defendants due process. Now, thousands of prisoners in the United States prosecuted under this law may potentially be resentenced.

The decision, issued on June 26 [PDF], marked the first time in over fifteen years that the court had found a criminal statute was void for vagueness. Leah Litman for Columbia Law Review previously pointed out, “Hispanic and black offenders receive the ACCA enhancement at higher rates than white offenders do.” The harsh mandatory minimum may explain why many defendants “plead guilty to avoid more extensive prison time.”

ACCA was a prelude to federal “three strikes” laws of the 1990s. In 1984, it was passed so that a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence could be imposed on any person convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon who also had three prior convictions for a “violent felony.”

The law defined “violent felony” as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” It lists burglary, arson, or extortion, as well as the “use of explosives,” as crimes that would trigger the enhancement. But vague (and now unconstitutional) part of the law is the “residual clause” that says the law can be applied to any crime that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

The case the Supreme Court heard, Johnson v. United States, involved whether this part of ACCA covered Minnesota’s “offense of unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun.”

Samuel Johnson, a white supremacist, was monitored by the FBI in 2010 as he became more and more involved in a neo-Nazi organization. The FBI suspected he might be planning acts of terrorism. He informed undercover agents he planned to attack “the Mexican consulate” in Minnesota, “progressive bookstores,” and “liberals.” He showed agents “an AK-47 rifle, several semiautomatic firearms and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition.” Prosecutors sought a 15-year sentencing enhancement and were granted the mandatory minimum sentence under ACCA.

As Justice Antonin Scalia explains in the decision, “Since 2007, this court has decided four cases attempting to discern its meaning.” It ruled in 2007 this part of the law covered attempted burglary in Florida and, in 2011, the offense of “vehicular flight from a law enforcement officer” in Indiana. The court, however, ruled in 2008 that the law did not cover “driving under the influence” in New Mexico and, in 2009, that it did not cover “failure to report to a penal institution” in Illinois.

Over the past eight years, Scalia notes that the court made “repeated attempts” but repeatedly failed to “craft a principled and objective standard out of the residual clause.” Seeing how it is impossible to prevent any “risk comparison” from “devolving into guesswork and intuition,” it was deemed to be unfair. (more…)