U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS decision striking down part of career-criminals law is retroactive, Supreme Court says

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Hundreds of inmates could win release from prison as a result of a 7-1 decision Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled (PDF) that a June 2015 decision striking down a portion of the Armed Career Criminals Act applies retroactively in cases on collateral review.

The prior case, Johnson v. United States, concerned the federal law that boosts the sentence for an illegal gun conviction if the defendant has at least three prior convictions for violent felonies. The Johnson decision struck down the law’s “residual clause,” which said a violent felony includes any conduct that “presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

The Johnson court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, said the provision was void for vagueness. University of California at Irvine law dean Erwin Chemerinsky called Johnson the most important decision of 2015 for federal courts in an article for ABAJournal.com.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority decision in the new case, Welch v. United States. Kennedy said the Johnson decision announced a substantive rule that has retroactive effect.

A prior story by SCOTUSblog said a ruling for Florida inmate Gregory Welch could lead to the release of at least hundreds of prisoners. It might not benefit Welch, though.

Kennedy said a federal appeals court could still decide on remand that Welch was not entitled to contest his sentence. Welch wouldn’t be entitled to relief, for example, if Welch qualifies as a career criminal under another, more specific provision of the act defining violent felonies, Kennedy said.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the majority had undermined “any principled limitation on the finality of federal convictions.”

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