Justices Push Sentencing Relief Retroactively

     WASHINGTON (CN) — Nearly a year after overturning of a vague law on armed career criminals, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday that this holding should be applied retroactively.
     The Supreme Court determined the precedent at issue in June 2015 with the decision Johnson v. United States, finding 8-1 that the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act is incompatible with the constitutional prohibition of vague criminal laws.
     The residual clause of the statute pertains to its description of any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year that “involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”
     With the court striking this clause down as unconstitutional, a man named Gregory Welch began lobbying for retroactive relief.
     The residual clause put Welch away for 15 years after he was convicted in Florida for possession of a gun by a felon.
     When the 11th Circuit initially upheld the sentence in 2012, it said 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 Welch had a prior offense that qualified as a violent felony: a 1996 strong arm-robbery conviction involving the “sudden snatching” of jewelry.
     Though the 11th Circuit blocked Welch from appealing in light of Johnson, the Supreme Court took up the case this past January and ordered the 11th Circuit on Monday to give Welch another look.
     Writing for a seven-member majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said today’s holding does not necessarily promise sentencing relief for Welch.
     “It may well be that the Court of Appeals on remand will determine on other grounds that the District Court was correct to deny Welch’s motion to amend his sentence,” Kennedy wrote. “For instance, the parties continue to dispute whether Welch’s strong-arm robbery conviction qualifies as a violent felony under the elements clause of the act, which would make Welch eligible for a 15-year sentence regardless of Johnson. On the present record, however, and in light of today’s holding that Johnson is retroactive in cases on collateral review, reasonable jurists at least could debate whether Welch is entitled to relief. For these reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
     Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the lone dissent, warning that the majority’s “holding comes at a steep price.”
     “The majority ignores an insuperable procedural obstacle: when, as here, a court fails to rule on a claim not presented in a prisoner’s §2255 motion, there is no error for us to reverse,” Thomas wrote. “The majority also misconstrues the retroactivity framework developed in Teague v. Lane, and its progeny, thereby undermining any principled limitation on the finality of federal convictions.”

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