Justices Refine Armed Career Criminal Act

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A white supremacist was improperly sentenced as an armed career criminal based on a “shapeless provision” of the law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday.
     The FBI snared Samuel Johnson in 2012 after an investigation of his group, the Aryan Liberation Movement.
     In addition to manufacturing napalm, silencers, and other explosives for the organization, Johnson had showed an undercover officer his AK-47 rifle and a large cache of ammunition containing approximately 1,100 rounds.
     The 2012 charges also took into account that Johnson possessed a .22 caliber semi-automatic assault rifle and a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun.
     When Johnson copped guilty to some of the charges, prosecutors requested an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
     Johnson balked at the mandatory 15-year sentence such an enhancement carried, complaining that the three priors prosecutors cited were not violent felonies.
     In one 1999 case, Johnson had put a BB gun to the head of an individual and demanded money. The victim of that 1999 robbery did not know the weapon was not a handgun.
     Johnson racked up the other two convictions in 2007. That year he pleaded guilty to robbing an individual at gunpoint in a parking lot, and he was convicted of possessing a short-barreled shotgun during a drug sale.
     In addition to contending that the categorical approach would reveal attempted simple robbery was not a violent felony, Johnson argued that the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.
     A federal judge in St. Paul shot each challenge down, however, and sentenced Johnson to the mandatory minimum of 180 months in prison.
     The 8th Circuit affirmed in July 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted Johnson a writ of certiorari last year.
     In reversing Friday, the justices concluded 8-1 that the Armed Career Criminal Act’s so-called “residual clause” is incompatible with the constitutional prohibition of vague criminal laws.
     The residual clause of the statute pertains to it 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.”
     “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,” the lead opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia states. “Increasing a defendant’s sentence under the clause denies due process of law.”
     Scalia dug into two 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?”
     The ruling goes on to quote the Ninth Circuit’s famously acerbic former chief, Alez Kozinski, offering some examples.
     “A statistical analysis of the state reporter?” Kozinski asked in a 2009 dissent. “A survey? Expert evidence? Google? Gut instinct?”
     Scalia said the residual clause additionally “leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony.”
     “It is one thing to apply an imprecise ‘serious potential risk’ standard to real-world facts; it is quite another to apply it to a judge-imagined abstraction,” Scalia wrote.
     The ruling goes on to enumerate other instances in which federal courts wrestled with the law.
     “It has been said that the life of the law is experience,” Scalia wrote. “Nine years’ experience trying to derive meaning from the residual clause convinces us that we have embarked upon a failed enterprise. Each of the uncertainties in the residual clause may be tolerable in isolation, but ‘their sum makes a task for us which at best could be only guesswork.’ Invoking so shapeless a provision to condemn someone to prison for 15 years to life does not comport with the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.”
     Scalia concludes by refusing to apply the doctrine of stare decisis, which says the incorrectness of precedent is not by itself enough to overrule.
     While stare decisis “promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles,” Scalia thundered that “decisions under the residual clause have proved to be anything but evenhanded, predictable, or consistent.”
     “Today’s decision does not call into question application of the act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the act’s definition of a violent felony,” he added.
     Justice Samuel Alito dissented alone, remarking that “the court’s determination to be done with residual clause cases, if not its fidelity to legal principles, is impressive.”
     “There should be no doubt that Samuel Johnson was an armed career criminal,” Alito wrote. “His record includes a number of serious felonies. And he has been caught with dangerous weapons on numerous occasions. That this case has led to the residual clause’s demise is confounding. I only hope that Congress can take the court at its word that either amending the list of enumerated offenses or abandoning the categorical approach would solve the problem that the court perceives.”
     Five colleagues joined Scalia’s lead opinion in full, but two others filed opinions concurring in the judgment.
     Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring paragraph endorses Alito’s view that “the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is not unconstitutionally vague under the categorical approach or a record-based approach.”
     Using the categorical approach, Kennedy said he would still reverse based on the finding that Johnson’s conviction for possession of a short-barreled shotgun does not qualify as a violent felony.
     Justice Clarence Thomas expanded upon this point in a much longer concurring opinion that cites his wariness of strike the residual clause as unconstitutionally vague.
     “Simply put, our vagueness doctrine shares an uncomfortably similar history with substantive due process, a judicially created doctrine lacking any basis in the Constitution,” Thomas wrote.

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