Johnson v. United States

PETITIONER: Curtis Darnell Johnson
RESPONDENT: United States

DOCKET NO.: 08-6925
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 559 US 133 (2010)
GRANTED: Feb 23, 2009
ARGUED: Oct 06, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 02, 2010

Lisa Call - argued the cause for the petitioner
Leondra R. Kruger - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Curtis Johnson was convicted in a Florida federal district court for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. He was sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) because the district court determined that his three earlier convictions constituted "violent felonies." Mr. Curtis appealed arguing that one of his prior convictions was for battery and the Florida Supreme Court had held the Florida battery law did not constitute a "violent felony."

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Mr. Johnson's prior battery conviction under Florida law constituted a "violent felony" under the ACCA. The court reasoned that the force requirement of the definition for a "violent felony" was satisfied by the "touching or striking" element under the state battery law.


1) Was the Eleventh Circuit bound by the Florida Supreme Court's holding that its state battery law did not have, as an element, the "use or threatened use of physical force?"

2) Is a prior state conviction for battery in all cases a "violent felony?"

Media for Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 06, 2009 in Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 02, 2010 in Johnson v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 08-6925, Johnson versus United States.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Petitioner Curtis Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C., Section 922(g)(1).

The government sought an enhanced penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act which provides that a person who violates Section 922(g) and who has three previous convictions for a violent felony, that’s a crucial language, shall be imprisoned for a minimum of fifteen years and a maximum of life.

The act defines a violent felony to include among other things a felony offense which quote “has as an element the use attempted use or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

The government proffered three prior felony convictions to establish Johnson's eligibility for sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Johnson did not dispute the two of those convictions qualified as violent felonies, but he objected to third, namely a 2003 felony conviction in Florida for battery.

That conviction was for simple battery under Florida law which ordinarily is a first degree misdemeanor, but is a third degree felony for a defendant who has, as Johnson had, been convicted of battery, even simple battery, previously.

Under Florida law the elements of battery may be satisfied in one of three ways.

A person actually and intentionally strikes another person; he intentionally causes bodily harm to another person or and this is what is at issue here, he actually and intentionally touches another person.

Nothing in the record of Johnson's 2003 battery conviction permitted the district court to conclude that it rested upon anything more than the least of these acts, touching, which the Florida Supreme Court has held is satisfied by any intentional physical contact, no matter how slight.

Under Florida law, this is a quote from the Supreme Court “a tap on the shoulder without consent establishes a battery.”

Accordingly, Johnson's conviction was a predicate violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act only if intentionally touching another person constitutes the use of physical force within the meaning of the act.

The District Court concluded that it does and sentenced Johnson to a prison term of 15 years and 5 months.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, we granted certiorari.

The Armed Career Criminal Act contains no statutory definition of physical force and we therefore give that phrase its ordinary meaning.

The adjective physical is clear in meaning; it is the noun force that poses the difficulty.

Force has a number of meanings.

We exclude its specialized meaning in the field of physics, a cause of the acceleration of mass.

In more general usage it refers to strength and power of an unusual degree and to violence directed against a person or thing.

The ordinary usage of the word therefore suggests a degree of power that would not be satisfied by the merest touching such as a tap on the shoulder.

There is however a more specialized legal usage of the word force.

It’s used in describing one of the elements of the common-law crime of battery which consisted of the intentional application of unlawful force that was the definition, against the person of another.

The common law held that this element of force was satisfied by even the slightest offensive touching.

We do not believe the term ‘force’ in the Armed Career Criminal Act has the specialized meaning that it bore in the common-law definition of battery.

Although, common-law term of art should be given its established common-law meaning, we do not force term of art definitions into contexts where they plainly do not fit.

Here we are interpreting the phrase physical force as used in defining not the crime of battery, but rather the statutory category of violent felonies.

We think it's clear that in the context of the statutory definition of violent felony, the phrase ‘physical force’ means violent force that is force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.

Even by itself the word violent connotes a substantial degree of force.

When the adjective violent is attached to the noun felony, its connotation of strong physical force is even clear.