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Thoughts on Johnson v. United States

To say that June 26th, 2015 was a momentous day in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States is an understatement.  The Court’s rulings on gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act are noteworthy, but the most noteworthy ruling for our purposes was a third opinion – Johnson v. United States.

In Johnson, Mr. Johnson – a convicted felon – showed multiple firearms to undercover federal agents, who were investigating Mr. Johnson as part of an investigation into his alleged involvement in domestic terrorism.  After his arrest, he pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.  At sentencing, he faced an enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which was triggered due to the fact that he had once unlawfully possessed a short-barrel shotgun.  This meant that Mr. Johnson potentially faced a minimum of 15 years in federal prison, with the maximum sentence being a life sentence.

The real issue of the case was whether the so-called “residual clause” of the ACCA – whether a classification of a violent felon as an individual who “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” – was constitutionally vague.  The Court deemed it was, as they concluded that the simple act of possessing a sawed-off shotgun would leave the offender in doubt over whether or not this act was considered a violent felony.  As Justice Antonin Scalia so eloquently put it: “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.’ United States v. Evans, 333 U. S. 483, 495 (1948). 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.”

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