Johnson v. United States, No. (13-7120)

Post Date: June 29, 2015

On Friday, June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is so vague that it is unconstitutional.  Read on for more information regarding this decision and see the links directly below for background information regarding Johnson v. United States.

January 2015: Court orders new look at armed career criminal law
April 2015: FAMM submits amicus brief and Supreme Court hears oral arguments
June 2015: Opinion of the court and ruling on the SCOTUS Blog
June 2015: FAMM’s press release
April 2016: SCOTUS considers retroactivity of Johnson in Welch v. United States
April 2016: SCOTUS rules in Welch v. United States that the decision in Johnson v. United States limiting the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act is retroactive!

First, an important note: We’ve heard from many prisoners and their family members who think this decision might help those sentenced as “Career Offenders.” The Armed Career Criminal Act is not the same as the Career Offender guideline. This decision does not affect Career Offender sentences.

A. What is an Armed Career Criminal?

A person is sentenced as an Armed Career Criminal to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence (18 U.S.C. sec. 924(e)) if he is

  1. convicted of being a “felon in possession” of a firearm or ammunition (18 U.S.C. sec. 922(g); AND
  2. has three prior “serious drug” or “violent felony” convictions.

B. What is a violent felony?

Johnson had to do with the prior violent felonies requirement. The ACCA statute tells the court to count any prior conviction as a “violent felony” if it

  1. has the use of physical force as an “element” of the offense; or
  2. is “burglary, arson, or extortion”; or
  3. “involves the use of explosives”; or
  4. “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

 C. What did the Supreme Court do?

The Constitution requires criminal offenses to be clearly defined so that people know when they are breaking the law. Number 4 in the list above is the “residual clause” and the Supreme Court struck it down as too vague. The rest of the statute and the other definitions of “violent felony” remain in force.

This means that that only prior felony convictions that

  1. include the use of physical force in the definition of the offense; or
  2. are burglary, arson, or extortion; or
  3. involve the use of explosives

can be counted toward the three prior felonies needed to trigger the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. Without three prior serious drug or violent felony offenses, a person convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm or ammunition cannot receive a sentence greater than ten years.

In short: Courts can no longer use the residual clause to determine if a person has a prior violent felony for ACCA purposes.

D. Who is affected by this decision?

This decision applies to

  1. People who have not been convicted and/or sentenced.
  2. People who have been sentenced as an Armed Career Criminal but whose direct appeal is still pending and for whom at least one of the three prior offenses that were used to enhance the sentence to 15 years was based on the residual clause.

It might also apply retroactively. The Supreme Court did not declare the decision retroactive. We urge prisoners sentenced under ACCA with prior offenses that were established using the residual clause to contact their lawyers or federal public defenders to find out about obtaining relief.

Unfortunately, FAMM cannot provide legal advice or representation or tell prisoners or their loved ones whether they are entitled to relief under Johnson. We will keep you posted on developments in this area of litigation.