__ U.S. __ (2015), 13-7120, Johnson v. United States

Docket Nº:13-7120
Citation:__ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569, 83 U.S.L.W. 4576
Opinion Judge:SCALIA, JUSTICE
Party Name:SAMUEL JAMES JOHNSON, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES
Attorney:Katherine M. Menendez argued thew cause for petitioner. Michael R. Dreeben argued the cause for respondent.
Judge Panel:SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., and THOMAS, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion. JUSTICE KENNEDY, concurring in the judgment. JUSTICE THO...
Case Date:June 26, 2015
Court:United States Supreme Court
SUMMARY

After Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), the prosecution sought an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes an increased prison term upon a defendant with three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” a term defined by section 924(e)(2)(B)’s residual clause to include any felony that “involves conduct that presents a ... (see full summary)

 
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Page __

__ U.S. __ (2015)

135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569, 83 U.S.L.W. 4576, 25 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 459

SAMUEL JAMES JOHNSON, PETITIONER

v.

UNITED STATES

No. 13-7120

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 2015

[135 S.Ct. 2552] Argued November 5, 2014

Reargued April 20, 2015

Editorial Note:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed official reporter.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Reversed and remanded.

SYLLABUS

[135 S.Ct. 2553] [192 L.Ed.2d 574] After petitioner Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), the Government sought an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes an increased prison term upon a defendant with three prior convictions for [135 S.Ct. 2554] a " violent felony," § 924(e)(1), a term defined by § 924(e)(2)(B)'s residual clause to include any felony that " involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The Government argued that Johnson's [192 L.Ed.2d 575] prior conviction for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun met this definition, making the third conviction of a violent felony. This Court had previously pronounced upon the meaning of the residual clause in James v. United States, 550 U.S. 192, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532; Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S.Ct. 1581, 170 L.Ed.2d 490; Chambers v. United States, 555 U.S. 122, 129 S.Ct. 687, 172 L.Ed.2d 484; and Sykes v. United States, 564 U.S. 1, 131 S.Ct. 2267, 180 L.Ed.2d 60, and had rejected suggestions by dissenting Justices in both James and Sykes that the clause is void for vagueness. Here, the District Court held that the residual clause does cover unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, and imposed a 15-year sentence under ACCA. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Held :

Imposing an increased sentence under ACCA's residual clause violates due process. Pp. 3-15.

(a) The Government violates the Due Process Clause when it takes away someone's life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement. Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357-358, 103 S.Ct. 1855, 75 L.Ed.2d 903. Courts must use the " categorical approach" when deciding whether an offense is a violent felony, looking " only to the fact that the defendant has been convicted of crimes falling within certain categories, and not to the facts underlying the prior convictions." Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 600, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 . Deciding whether the residual clause covers a crime thus requires a court to picture the kind of conduct that the crime involves in " the ordinary case," and to judge whether that abstraction presents a serious potential risk of physical injury. James, supra, at 208, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532. Pp. 3-5.

(b) Two features of the residual clause conspire to make it unconstitutionally vague. By tying the judicial assessment of risk to a judicially imagined " ordinary case" of a crime rather than to real-world facts or statutory elements, the clause leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime. See James, supra, at 211, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532. At the same time, the residual clause leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony. Taken together, these uncertainties produce more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates. This Court's repeated failure to craft a principled standard out of the residual clause and the lower courts' persistent inability to apply the clause in a consistent way confirm its hopeless indeterminacy. Pp. 5-10.

(c) This Court's cases squarely contradict the theory that the residual clause is constitutional merely because some underlying crimes may clearly pose a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. See, e.g., United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U.S. 81, 89, 41 S.Ct. 298, 65 L.Ed. 516. Holding the residual clause void for vagueness does not put other criminal laws that use terms such as " substantial risk" in doubt, because those laws generally require gauging the riskiness of an individual's conduct on a particular occasion, not the [192 L.Ed.2d 576] riskiness of an idealized ordinary case of the crime. Pp. 10-13.

(d) The doctrine of stare decisis does not require continued adherence to James [135 S.Ct. 2555] and Sykes. Experience leaves no doubt about the unavoidable uncertainty and arbitrariness of adjudication under the residual clause. James and Sykes opined about vagueness without full briefing or argument. And continued adherence to those decisions would undermine, rather than promote, the goals of evenhandedness, predictability, and consistency served by stare decisis. Pp. 13-15.

526 F.App'x 708, reversed and remanded.

Katherine M. Menendez argued thew cause for petitioner.

Michael R. Dreeben argued the cause for respondent.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., and THOMAS, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

SCALIA, JUSTICE

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, a defendant convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm faces more severe punishment if he has three or more previous convictions for a " violent felony," a term defined to include any felony that " involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B). We must decide whether this part of the definition of a violent felony survives the Constitution's prohibition of vague criminal laws.

I

Federal law forbids certain people -- such as convicted felons, persons committed to mental institutions, and drug users -- to ship, possess, and receive firearms. § 922(g). In general, the law punishes violation of this ban by up to 10 years' imprisonment. § 924(a)(2). But if the violator has three or more earlier convictions for a " serious drug offense" or a " violent felony," the Armed Career Criminal Act increases his prison term to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life. § 924(e)(1); Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 136, 130 S.Ct. 1265, 176 L.Ed.2d 1 (2010). The Act defines " violent felony" as follows:

" any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . that --

" (i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or " (ii) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious [135 S.Ct. 2556] potential risk of physical injury to another." § 924(e)(2)(B) (emphasis added).

The closing words of this definition, italicized above, have come to be known as the Act's residual clause. Since 2007, this Court has decided four cases attempting to discern its meaning. We have held that the residual clause (1) covers Florida's offense of attempted burglary, James v. United States, 550 U.S. 192, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532 (2007); (2) does not cover New Mexico's offense of driving under the influence, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S.Ct. [192 L.Ed.2d 577] 1581, 170 L.Ed.2d 490 (2008); (3) does not cover Illinois' offense of failure to report to a penal institution, Chambers v. United States, 555 U.S. 122, 129 S.Ct. 687, 172 L.Ed.2d 484 (2009); and (4) does cover Indiana's offense of vehicular flight from a law-enforcement officer, Sykes v. United States, 564 U.S. 1, 131 S.Ct. 2267, 180 L.Ed.2d 60(2011). In both James and Sykes, the Court rejected suggestions by dissenting Justices that the residual clause violates the Constitution's prohibition of vague criminal laws. Compare James, 550 U.S., at 210, n. 6, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532, with id., at 230, 127 S.Ct. 1586, 167 L.Ed.2d 532 (SCALIA, J., dissenting); compare Sykes, 564 U.S., at __, 131 S.Ct. 2267, 180 L.Ed.2d 60 (slip op., at 13-14), with id., at __, 131 S.Ct. 2267, 180 L.Ed.2d 60 (SCALIA, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 6-8).

This case involves the application of the residual clause to another crime, Minnesota's offense of unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Petitioner Samuel Johnson is a felon with a long criminal record. In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to monitor him because of his involvement in a white-supremacist organization that the Bureau suspected was planning to commit acts of terrorism. During the investigation, Johnson disclosed to undercover agents that he had manufactured explosives and that he planned to attack " the Mexican consulate" in Minnesota, " progressive bookstores," and " 'liberals.'" Revised Presentence Investigation in No. 0:12CR00104-001 (D. Minn.), p. 15, ¶ 16. Johnson showed the agents his AK-47 rifle, several semiautomatic firearms, and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

After his eventual arrest, Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of § 922(g). The Government requested an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act. It argued that three of Johnson's previous offenses--including unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, see Minn. Stat. § 609.67 (2006) -- qualified as violent felonies. The District Court agreed and sentenced Johnson to a 15-year prison term under the Act. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 526 F.App'x 708 (CA8 2013) (...

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