Historic Supreme Court Decision Strikes Down Part of a Federal Violent Criminal Statute

LBN’s Bob Donley reports that the Supreme Court has issued a very important decision that got ignored by the media in their intense coverage of the Obamacare and same-sex marriage cases. The Court’s opinion in Johnson v. United States is one of seven cases in the Court’s term just completed in which the Court sided with a criminal defendant.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion that struck down a portion of the thirty-year-old Armed Career Criminal Act. The Court held that the statute was defective in part because it was void for vagueness. The Court had not issued such a holding in fifteen years. The ACCA imposed mandatory sentences on violent criminal defendants who committed crimes using firearms. The residual clause of the statute attempted to define a violent crime as one including a potential risk of violence. The Supreme Court held that the provision was too vague because it didn’t let people know which crimes were covered.

Scalia said that imposing a sentence based on this provision involved legal guesswork. He also noted that the Court had tried without success on four prior occasions to define the residual clause. In a previous dissent, Scalia had characterized the provision for “shoddy draftsmanship.” The Court held that the sentencing provision was inherently unfair.

The Johnson case could cast a very long shadow. Federal prosecutors have invoked the ACCA in a number of cases, many of them involving African American and Hispanic defendants. The United States has a larger prison population than any other nation. And the ACCA contributes many of the prisoners who are serving mandatory sentences.

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