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Articles Tagged with Due Process

The federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides for an enhanced penalty, a mandatory minimum 15 year sentence, for felons possessing firearms who have previously been convicted of a combination of three serious drug offenses or “violent felonies.” Congress defined “violent felonies” in three ways: 1: crimes which have as an element use of force or the threat or attempt to use force against another; 2: arson, burglary, extortion or any crime that involves the use of explosives; and 3: any crime that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of injury to another.” 81 U.S.C. § 924(c)(2). The last definition is known as the “residual clause” and it has been the subject of five Supreme Court decisions since 2007. In the most recent, Johnson v. United States, decided last week, the Court finally threw in the towel on attempting to construe this provision and held that it was unconstitutionally vague. In Johnson, the lower courts had held that Johnson’s prior conviction for possession of a sawed-off shotgun qualified as a “violent felony” under the residual clause. Initially the Supreme Court granted certiorari only to determine whether that offense qualified as an ACCA “crime of violence.” After argument on this narrow issue, however, the Court asked for supplemental briefing and argument on the constitutionality of the residual clause and eventually decided the broader, constitutional issue, holding that the clause was so vague that it violated due process.

So, as of June 26, 2015, there are only two definitions of “violent felony” that can serve as predicates for the enhanced ACCA mandatory minimum sentence: either the predicate offense must have as an element of the offense the use, threat of use or attempted use of force, or it must be arson, burglary, extortion or an offense involving explosives.

The federal Sentencing Guidelines, which provide for substantially increased sentencing ranges for so-called “Career Offenders,” may and should also be affected by Johnson’s holding. A defendant over 18 can be sentenced as a Career Offender for any two prior convictions of a “crime of violence or controlled substance offence” – a far larger population of defendants than those charged for being felons in possession of a firearm. U.S.S.G. §4B1.1(a). Because the definition for “crime of violence” is the same as the ACCA definition of “violent felony,” the First Circuit has construed them identically, such that precedent as to the ACCA definition is generally applicable to the Guidelines definition, and vice-versa.  See, e.g., U.S. v. Williams, 529 F.3d 1, 4 n.3 (1st Cir. 2008) (authority interpreting one “generally persuasive” in interpreting the other); U.S. v. Almenas, 553 F.3d 27, 34 n.7 (1st Cir. 2009) (ACCA and Guidelines definitions read “in pari passu”).


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