Johnson v. United States, No. 13–7120.

CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation135 S.Ct. 2551,192 L.Ed.2d 569,576 U.S. 591
Docket NumberNo. 13–7120.
Decision Date26 June 2015
Parties Samuel James JOHNSON, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.

576 U.S. 591
135 S.Ct.
2551
192 L.Ed.2d 569

Samuel James JOHNSON, Petitioner
v.
UNITED STATES.

No. 13–7120.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Nov. 5, 2014.
Reargued April 20, 2015.

Decided June 26, 2015.


Katherine M. Menendez, Minneapolis, MN, for Petitioner.

John F. Bash, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Katherian D. Roe, Federal Defender, Katherine M. Menendez, Assistant Federal Defender, Counsel of Record, Douglas H.R. Olson, Assistant Federal Defender, District of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, for Petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, John F. Bash, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, John P. Taddei, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Respondent United States.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

576 U.S. 593

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:

576 U.S. 594
"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. 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, with id., at 230, 127 S.Ct. 1586 (SCALIA, J., dissenting); compare Sykes, 564 U.S., at ––––, 131 S.Ct., at 2276–2277, with id., at ––––, 131 S.Ct., at 2286–2288 (SCALIA, J., dissenting).

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

576 U.S. 595

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 Fed.Appx. 708 (C.A.8 2013) (per curiam ). We granted certiorari to decide whether Minnesota's offense of unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun ranks as a violent felony under the residual clause. 572 U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1871, 188 L.Ed.2d 910 (2014). We later asked the parties to present reargument addressing the compatibility of the residual clause with the Constitution's prohibition of vague criminal laws. 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 939, 190 L.Ed.2d 718 (2015).

II

The Fifth Amendment provides that "[n]o person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Our cases establish that the Government violates this guarantee by taking 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 (1983). The prohibition of vagueness

135 S.Ct. 2557

in criminal statutes "is a well-recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law," and a statute that flouts it "violates the first essential of due process."

576 U.S. 596

Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391, 46 S.Ct. 126, 70 L.Ed. 322 (1926). These principles apply not only to statutes defining elements of crimes, but also to statutes fixing sentences. United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979).

In Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 600, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 (1990), this Court held that the Armed Career Criminal Act requires courts to use a framework known as the categorical approach when deciding whether an offense "is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." Under the categorical approach, a court assesses whether a crime qualifies as a violent felony "in terms of how the law defines the offense and not in terms of how an individual offender might have committed it on a particular occasion." Begay, supra, at 141, 128 S.Ct. 1581.

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. The court's task goes beyond deciding whether creation of risk is an element of the crime. That is so because, unlike the part of the definition of a violent felony that asks whether the crime "has as an element the use ... of physical force," the residual clause asks whether the crime "involves conduct " that presents too much risk of physical injury. What is more, the inclusion of burglary and extortion among the enumerated offenses preceding the residual clause confirms that the court's task also goes beyond evaluating the chances that the physical acts that make up the crime will injure someone. The act of making an extortionate demand or breaking and entering into someone's home does not, in and of itself, normally cause physical injury. Rather, risk of injury arises because the extortionist might engage in violence after making his demand or because the burglar might confront a resident in the home after breaking and entering.

576 U.S. 597

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. Increasing a defendant's sentence under the clause denies due process of law.

A

Two features of the residual clause conspire to make it unconstitutionally vague. In the first place, the residual clause leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime. It ties the judicial assessment of risk to a judicially imagined...

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2817 practice notes
  • Jones v. Governor of Fla., No. 20-12003
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • September 11, 2020
    ...people fair notice of the conduct it punishes" or is "so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement." Johnson v. United States , 576 U.S. 591, 595, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015). But a law "is not vague because it may at times be difficult to prove an incriminating 975 F.3d......
  • Dean v. United States, C18-4044-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • September 28, 2021
    ...cases that addressed the constitutionality of residual clauses in various criminal and immigration statutes. In Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), the Court invalidated the residual clause in the definition of “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Id. at 606.......
  • Granda v. United States, No. 17-15194
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • March 11, 2021
    ...the offense"). Granda argued that § 924(c)'s residual clause was unconstitutionally vague under the reasoning of Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591, 597, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015), which had invalidated a similar residual clause found in the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA......
  • Mouzon v. United States, CV 119-130
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Georgia)
    • September 28, 2020
    ...filed a "Motion for Leave to File Supplemental Authority," in which he challenged his § 924(c) convictions under Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015). (Doc. no. 14-4.) The Eleventh Circuit affirmed Petitioner's convictions and sentences: "Our independent review of the entire record......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2800 cases
  • Jones v. Governor of Fla., No. 20-12003
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • September 11, 2020
    ...people fair notice of the conduct it punishes" or is "so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement." Johnson v. United States , 576 U.S. 591, 595, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015). But a law "is not vague because it may at times be difficult to prove an incriminating 975 F.3d......
  • Dean v. United States, C18-4044-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • September 28, 2021
    ...cases that addressed the constitutionality of residual clauses in various criminal and immigration statutes. In Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), the Court invalidated the residual clause in the definition of “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Id. at 606.......
  • Granda v. United States, No. 17-15194
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • March 11, 2021
    ...the offense"). Granda argued that § 924(c)'s residual clause was unconstitutionally vague under the reasoning of Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591, 597, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015), which had invalidated a similar residual clause found in the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA......
  • Mouzon v. United States, CV 119-130
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Georgia)
    • September 28, 2020
    ...filed a "Motion for Leave to File Supplemental Authority," in which he challenged his § 924(c) convictions under Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015). (Doc. no. 14-4.) The Eleventh Circuit affirmed Petitioner's convictions and sentences: "Our independent review of the entire record......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • THE TRAJECTORY OF FEDERAL GUN CRIMES.
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 170 Nbr. 3, February 2022
    • February 1, 2022
    ...157 (2014); Abramski v. United States, 573 U.S. 169 (2014); Henderson v. United States, 575 U.S. 622 (2015); Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015); Welch v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1257 (2016); Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, 136 S. Ct. 1863 (2016); Mathis v. United States, 136 S. C......
  • Recent Legal Developments: Criminal Justice Decisions of the United States Supreme Court, 2,020 Term
    • United States
    • Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 47-1, March 2022
    • March 1, 2022
    ...Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977).Edwards v.Vannoy, ___ U.S. ___ (2021).Greer v. United States, ___ U.S. ___ (2021).Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015).Jones v. Mississippi, ___ U.S. ___ (2021).Lange v. California, ___ U.S. ___ (2021).Miller v. Alabama, 547 U.S. 460 (2012).Montana v. U......

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