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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

High Court to Hear Enhanced-Sentencing Case

(CN) - The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could see the release of hundreds of prisoners, depending on whether it decides to retroactively apply a ruling from last year.

Gregory Welch was convicted for possession of a gun by a felon under the Armed Career Criminal Act's so-called "residual clause," which required a minimum of 15 years in prison because of three prior violent felony convictions. The Floridian was indeed sentenced to 15 years for the charge.

The 11th Circuit upheld the sentence in 2012, finding that Welch consented to a search of his apartment that led to the discovery of a pistol and ammunition. The Atlanta-based appeals court also ruled that one of Welch's prior offenses, a 1996 strong arm robbery conviction involving the "sudden snatching" of jewelry, qualified as a violent felony.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Johnson vs. United States that the Armed Career Criminal Act's residual clause is incompatible with the constitutional prohibition of vague criminal laws.

"We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the opinion. "Increasing a defendant's sentence under the clause denies due process of law."

Scalia dug into features of the residual clause that make it unconstitutionally vague.

"In the first place, the residual clause leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime," he wrote. "It ties the judicial assessment of risk to a judicially imagined 'ordinary case' of a crime, not to real-world facts or statutory elements. How does one go about deciding what kind of conduct the 'ordinary case' of a crime involves?"

Scalia said the residual clause also "leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony."

Last June, the 11th Circuit denied Welch's motion for a certificate to appeal the denial of his motion to vacate his conviction, ruling that Welch didn't show he was denied a constitutional right. It also denied as moot Welch's motion for appointment of counsel.

But the U.S. Justice Department has since supported a review to determine whether Johnson can be applied retroactively to prisoners who were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act's residual clause, according to a supplemental brief filed by Welch.

Hundreds of inmates have already served the maximum sentence now allowed by the Johnson ruling, according to a SCOTUSblog report.

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear Welch's case, apparently to decide Johnson's retroactivity. Per its custom, the high court did not comment on its decision to take the case.

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