In the midst of the several controversial 5-4 decisions released by the Supreme Court in the final week of June, one decision stood out—largely due to the near unanimity of the verdict.
Johnson v. United States, decided on June 26th, 2015, questioned whether certain parts of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) were too vague, violating the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. Eight of the nine justices agreed that they were, finding those parts unconstitutional.
The court’s decision is a victory for restorative justice, ensuring just process and predictability in sentencing based on the case facts rather than judicial hypotheticals.
The Purpose of ACCA is to remove dangerous criminals from the community by requiring extended prison terms for repeat offenders. This statute is applicable to people with three or more convictions for serious drug offenses or violent felonies. In addition to obviously violent offenses such as armed assault or activities purposefully causing physical harm, the statute also includes conduct such as burglary, extortion, and any activity that “presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” This final clause of the statute is referred to as the “residual clause,” and has been a judicial headache since it was enacted. As a result of the vague standard, different jurisdictions across the U.S. have applied varying standards.
A variety of offenses have been used to satisfy the residual clause, allowing extended prison sentences for repeat offenders. The Supreme Court has heard four cases since 2007 questioning whether specific offenses were applicable to the ACCA’s residual clause. Each time, the court failed to establish a workable standard for what crimes were applicable to the residual clause. Without a clear, controlling standard of application, it is impossible to ensure a just process through equal application of law across all federal jurisdictions.
Driving while intoxicated, attempted burglary, and vehicular flight from law enforcement have been applied as “violent” felonies in the prior Supreme Court cases. In Johnson v. United States, Mr. Johnson was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon, a crime with a possible sentence of up to ten years in prison. However, due to prior felony convictions, Mr. Johnson received a 15 year sentence under ACCA. The state applied a prior felony conviction of possession of a sawed-off shotgun to make him eligible for the enhanced sentence.
As with extortion, burglary, and other crimes that did not result in actual violence, the residual clause required not an examination of the facts of the case, but “require[d] a court to picture the kind of conduct that the crime involves in ‘the ordinary case.’” The residual clause required a judge to examine the potential risk of harm involved in a crime based upon a hypothetical understanding of how a crime might typically unfold. This undermines a just judicial process that calls for judgment based on what actually happened than what may possibly occur.
The Supreme Court held the residual clause violated the Due Process clause because the lack of a statutory standard “denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges.” While the Court had been unable to establish a standard in prior cases, the failed attempts aided the Court in this decision.
Requiring judicial assumptions and reliance upon stereotypes as called for by the residual clause of ACCA denied citizens clear notice of the law and penalties. This vagueness opened ACCA to abuse by overzealous prosecutors and judges. This holding highlights the importance of preserving just process in the criminal justice system by ensuring the standard for punishment is clear and absent any room for abuse.