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U.S. Supreme Court Holds Prior ACCA Ruling Retroactive

In a term with relatively few major criminal cases on its docket, the U.S. Supreme Court held that its previous decision in Johnson v. United States will have retroactive application on petitions for collateral review. In Johnson, the Court found the “residual clause” portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) unconstitutionally vague. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.30].

According to the Supreme Court, “Gregory Welch is one of the many offenders sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act before Johnson was decided. Welch pleaded guilty in 2010 to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.... [he] had three prior violent felony convictions, including a Florida conviction for a February 1996 ‘strong-arm robbery.’”

Welch had argued that the Florida conviction did not constitute a violent felony and therefore should not be counted against him in determining whether he should be sentenced under the ACCA. The federal district court disagreed and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Welch then filed a pro se habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging the Florida strong-arm robbery statute was vague and his attorney had rendered ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to object to his ACCA sentence. The district court denied the petition and denied a certificate of appealability. Welch’s motion to the appellate court for a certificate of appealability also was rejected.

However, as noted by the Supreme Court, “Less than three weeks later, this Court issued its decision in Johnson.” Welch’s motion for reconsideration was returned by the Eleventh Circuit since it had been submitted late. He then filed a pro se petition for certiorari, which was granted. As the federal government agreed with Welch that Johnson should have retroactive effect, the Supreme Court appointed an attorney “in support of the judgment of the Court of Appeals.”

On April 18, 2016, the Supreme Court held that its decision in Johnson was retroactive, stating, “decisions that interpret a statute are substantive if and when they meet the normal criteria for a substantive rule ... when they ‘alte[r] the range of conduct or the class of person that the law punishes.”
The Court noted that “By striking down the residual clause as void for vagueness, Johnson changed the substantive reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act, altering ‘the range of conduct or the class of persons that the [Act] punishes.’”

The Supreme Court also cited the plurality opinion in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which both parties agreed “applies in a federal collateral challenge to a federal conviction as it does in a federal collateral challenge to a state con-viction.” To thousands of federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences under the ACCA’s residual clause, this decision making Johnson retroactive casts a much-needed lifeline. 

The appellate court’s ruling on Welch’s appeal was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Welch v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1257 (2016).

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Related legal case

Welch v. United States