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Supreme Court Voids ACCA’s Residual Clause in Landmark Decision

Supreme Court Voids ACCA’s Residual Clause in Landmark Decision

by Derek Gilna

In a landmark decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, on June 26, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1), while leaving the rest of the statute intact. The impact of this ruling cannot be overstated for those who received mandatory minimum sentences based upon the ACCA’s residual clause.

Under federal law, certain people, including convicted felons, are prohibited from possessing or owning firearms. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). “In general, the law punishes violation of this ban by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.... But if the violator has three or more earlier convictions for a ‘serious drug offense’ or a ‘violent felony,’ the Armed Career Criminal Act increases his prison term to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life.”

The ACCA defines “violent felony” to include four enumerated crimes (burglary, arson, extortion and use of explosives), as well as offenses that “otherwise involve[] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” – known as the Act’s residual clause. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B).

In an appeal filed by federal prisoner Samuel James Johnson, who had a prior state conviction for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, the Supreme Court held that a district court, as part of the sentencing process, cannot increase a defendant’s sentence based upon the ACCA’s residual clause. The Court noted that many district courts, accepting the arguments of prosecutors, had classified as “violent felonies” offenses that did not rise to the level of violent acts.

“We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges,” the Supreme Court wrote, finding the residual clause to be unconstitutionally vague.

The Court therefore overruled its decisions in two prior cases and concluded that “imposing an increased sentence under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process,” while noting that its decision did “not call into question application of the Act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the Act’s definition of a violent felony.”

Justice Alito filed a dissent, while Justices Kennedy and Thomas filed concurring opinions. See: Johnson v. United States, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015).

Following the decision in Johnson, federal appellate and district courts have begun addressing claims related to increased sentences under the ACCA’s residual clause. In one recent case, the Sixth Circuit applied Johnson to a claim in which a prisoner challenged whether his conviction qualified as a “crime of violence” for a career offender enhancement under the similar residual clause of § 4B1.2(a)(2) of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The appellate court held that as it had “previously interpreted both residual clauses identically” for the ACCA and § 4B1.2(a)(2), the same relief was required: vacating the petitioner’s sentence. See: United States v. Darden, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 11814 (6th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal cases

Johnson v. United States

United States v. Darden