U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court strikes down portion of federal law enhancing sentences for 'career criminals'

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague.

The Armed Career Criminal Act boosts the sentence for an illegal gun conviction if the defendant has at least three prior convictions for violent felonies. The law defines a violent felony to include several offenses, including any felony that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

Increasing a defendant’s sentence based on that injury-risk definition—known as the law’s “residual clause”—denies a fair notice to defendants about prohibited conduct and denies due process of law, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote Friday in the majority opinion (PDF). The opinion left intact the law’s remaining definition of violent felonies.

Scalia noted that the court has decided four cases since 2007 that considered whether the residual clause applied to various offenses. Scalia’s dissent in two of the cases argued that the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague.

Scalia said the vagueness problem has become more apparent over the years as the court struggled to interpret the clause. “This court’s repeated attempts and repeated failures to craft a principled and objective standard out of the residual clause confirm its hopeless indeterminacy,” Scalia wrote.

Five justices joined Scalia’s opinion. Two other justices—Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas—sided with the defendant accused of violating the law but disagreed with Scalia on the constitutional issue. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.

The decision is Johnson v. United States.

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