Supreme Court Strikes Down Part of Career Criminal Sentencing Law

On Friday, June 26, 2015, in a decision entitled Johnson v. United States, the United States Supreme Court struck down the 'residual clause' of the Armed Career Criminals Act. This federal law elevates the sentence for a an illegal gun conviction if the defendant has three prior convictions that qualify as either "violent felonies" or "serious drug offenses." The law defines "violent felony" to include several specific laws - burglary, arson, extortion, or crimes that involve the use of explosives. The law also includes a "residual clause" that sweeps in crimes "otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious risk of physical injury to another."

Holding: Law is Unconstitutionally Vague

The Court held that this "residual clause" is unconstitutionally vague - meaning that it does not give fair notice to people of precisely what conduct will activate a 15 year mandatory prison sentence. Prior to the Court's decision, circuit courts across the country, and the Supreme Court itself, had struggled to apply this clause in a principled, objective and predictable fashion.

Application to Similar Career Offender Law

This gives hope to many people across the country sentenced under the similar "residual clause" of the Career Offender law, which massively increases the sentences for certain third-time offenders in federal court. A new decision like Johnson may apply retroactively to people already serving the sentences, or it may apply only to those defendants who have not yet been sentenced or whose cases are currently pending on appeal. These will be the next waves of litigation - determining who is entitled to relief under this new and important court decision - and determining whether it applies to those sentenced as career offenders. Read Johnson v. United States.