(CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out the prison sentence of a convicted "armed career criminal," ruling that a felony conviction for battery doesn't constitute a "violent felony" under sentence-enhancement guidelines.
Florida resident Curtis Darnell Johnson pleaded guilty to possessing ammunition after having been convicted of a felony. The government sought an enhanced penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which stipulates a 15-year to life sentence for anyone with three prior convictions for violent felonies found in possession of ammunition or firearms.
Johnson's sentence enhancement was based on his previous convictions for aggravated battery and burglary in 1986, and simple battery in 2003.
Johnson argued that the 2003 conviction was for simple battery under Florida law, which is typically a first-degree misdemeanor. It was elevated to a third-degree felony because Johnson had a prior battery conviction.
The district court sentenced Johnson to 15 years and five months in jail, and the 11th Circuit affirmed.
The high court reversed, however, noting that "any intentional physical contact" can be considered battery under Florida Supreme Court precedent, including a "tap ... on the shoulder without consent." Thus, a felony conviction for battery under Florida law does not necessarily constitute a "violent felony" under federal law.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the use of "physical force" suggests "a degree of power that would not be satisfied by the merest touching."
But the government insisted that even the slightest offensive touching would fall under the common-law crime of battery, making the sentencing enhancement valid.
"We disagree," Scalia wrote, adding that such an interpretation would lead to a "comical misfit with the defined term 'violent felony.'"
"We think it clear that in the context of a statutory definition of 'violent felony,' the phrase 'physical force' means violent force - that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person," Scalia wrote (original emphasis).
The justices opted instead for a "modified categorical approach," which allows courts to determine whether each conviction was based on a crime involving violent force.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying the "crime of battery, as traditionally defined, falls squarely within the plain language of the ACCA."
He and Justice Clarence Thomas said they would have upheld Johnson's sentence.
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