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Supreme Court’s New Case May Define Impact of Johnson Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court last June, in its decision in Johnson v. United States, struck down as too vague a key provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which imposed additional high mandatory minimum sentences — ranging from 15 years to life — for persons who had previously been convicted for three or more “violent felonies.”

The Johnson case raised the issue of whether part of the definition that law used for “violent felony” was so indefinite as to fall short of the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantee, by failing to give defendants prosecuted under the ACCA’s fair notice of their charges, or by allowing judges to enforce it arbitrarily.

Besides applying to offenses involving actual, attempted or threatened use of violence, and to arson, burglary, extortion, or use of explosives, the ACCA definition also gave longer sentences for past crimes that ran afoul of what became known as the “residual clause.” This covered criminal conduct which “presents a serious potential risk” of physical injury to one or more people.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia and joined by five other members of the high court, held the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague, and recounted the difficulties both district and appellate courts have had trying to come up with consistent standards for determining whether various criminal offenses should be viewed as presenting a serious risk of harm. Justices Kennedy and Thomas wrote separate opinions, concurring in the result but not the reasoning, leaving Justice Alito as the lone dissenter.

The Johnson decision invalidated imposing additional sentences for offenses covered by the residual clause, but did not affect enhanced sentences for convictions under the other parts of ACCA’s “violent felony” definition. But there has been widespread disagreement among legal authorities, post-Johnson, on how, or even if, sentences may be rolled back in the wake of the decision.

While the Supreme Court clearly ended enhanced sentences for crimes covered by ACCA’s residual clause, federal trial and appellate courts have not seen eye-to-eye on what prisoners with such claims can do about it. As soon as different courts began considering prisoner lawsuits to void sentences enhanced by the ACCA’s residual clause, they began to come to different conclusions. At least three federal appeals courts have ruled that, due to another law limiting the number of times prisoners can appeal their sentences, that inmates with potential Johnson claims can ask a court to reduce their sentences only if they have never previously filed an appeal — on any grounds.

Even in circuits where the federal appeals court would not forbid further appeals, a prisoner might be stymied in bringing such a claim, if the sentencing lower court rejects that bid because it views the Johnson decision as not having retroactive effect, because the Supreme Court was silent on that issue.

Fortunately, on January 12, the high court agreed to accept a new case (Welch v. United States) that could spell out how wide an impact the Johnson decision will have in reopening sentences already handed down under the ACCA.

The new case asks the high court to: set clear directions on handling Johnson claims in federal courts, by deciding if the Johnson decision has retroactive effect, and to set a clear standard for handling prisoners’ sentence reduction claims based on the decision. A favorable Supreme Court decision could offer new hope of reduced sentences for potentially hundreds or even thousands of prisoners with Johnson-based claims.

Armed Criminal Career Act

The Armed Criminal Career Act (ACCA) is a United States federal law that has considerably evolved through numerous revisions in Congress since its passage in 1984.

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