Johnson v. United States

PETITIONER: Samuel Johnson
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court
for the District of Minnesota

DOCKET NO.: 13-7120
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 576 US (2015)
GRANTED: Apr 21, 2014
ARGUED: Nov 05, 2014
REARGUED: Apr 20, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2015

ADVOCATES:
John F. Bash - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Michael R. Dreeben - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent in reargument
Katherine M. Menendez - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began investigating Samuel Johnson based on his involvement in an organization called the National Social Movement. Later in 2010, Johnson left that group to found the Aryan Liberation Movement. In November of that year, Johnson told an undercover FBI agent that he manufactured napalm, silencers, and other explosives for the Aryan Liberation Movement in addition to possessing an AK-47 rifle, several semi-automatic weapons, and a large cache of ammunition. In April 2012, Johnson was arrested at a meeting with his probation officer and admitted to possessing some of the previously mentioned weapons.

A grand jury charged Johnson with six counts of firearm possession, three of which relied on his classification as an "armed career criminal." This classification was based on the fact that he had three prior felony convictions that the district court designated as "violent felonies"—attempted simple robbery, simple robbery, and possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Pursuant to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Johnson was then subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. Johnson argued that the convictions in question should not be considered violent felonies and that the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague. The district court held that the felony convictions in question were in fact violent felonies and that Johnson was an armed career criminal for the purposes of the mandatory minimum sentence required by the ACCA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Question

Is the definition of "violent felony" in the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague?

Media for Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 05, 2014 in Johnson v. United States
Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - April 20, 2015 in Johnson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 2015 in Johnson v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion today in Case 13-1720, Johnson v. United States.

Antonin Scalia:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Federal law prohibits convicted felons from possessing firearms.

Generally the law punishes violations by no more than 10 years in prison.

But under the Armed Career Criminal Act, ACCA is the acronym, a violator who has three earlier convictions for a “violent felony” is subject to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison.

The act defines violent felony in part as any felony that is “burglary, arson or extortion, involves the use of explosives or, and this is the crucial phrase for today's case, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

That last phrase otherwise involves conduct, et cetera is known as the residual clause.

Since 2007, this Court has decided four cases, struggling to discern the meaning of the residual clause.

We have consistently failed to come up with anything approaching a principled and workable framework for separating the crimes that are covered by the residual clause from those that are not.

We have held that attempted burglary and vehicular flight from a law enforcement officer are violent felonies under the clause, while drunk driving and failure to report to a penal institution are not.

But our cases have failed to provide useful guidance to the lower Federal Courts about how to apply the clause to thousands of other crimes.

As a result the residual clause has spawned a multitude of disagreements in the Courts of Appeals about which offenses qualify as violent felonies.

This case involves the application of the residual clause to yet another crime, Minnesota's offense of unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun.

Petitioner Samuel Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The government asked for an enhanced sentence under the -- under ACCA, arguing that three of Johnson's previous offenses, including unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, qualified as violent felonies.

The District Court agreed and sentenced Johnson to 15 years.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We agreed to hear the case to decide whether the residual clause covers unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun.

After the initial argument of the case last November we asked the parties to present re-argument about whether the residual clause complies with the Constitution's prohibition of vague criminal laws.

The Fifth Amendment prohibits the federal government from depriving anyone of life, liberty or property without due process of law and the government violates this guarantee by punishing someone under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it prohibits, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.

We conclude that the indeterminacy of the residual clause both denies fair notice and invites arbitrary enforcement.

Two features of the clause combine to make it unconstitutionally vague.

First, the court leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk that a particular crime poses.

The clause directs judges to gauge the risk posed by the conduct involved in the ordinary case of the crime for which the defendant has been convicted, not the risk posed by the particular conduct in which the individual engaged.

But how does one go about deciding what kind of conduct the ordinary case of a crime involves.

For example, does ordinary witness tampering involved offering a witness a bribe or threatening a witness with violence?

Does ordinary attempted burglary involve a violent confrontation between a would-be burglar and the police, or does it involve a burglar's running away after a homeowner yells, who is there?

The residual clause offers no reliable way to choose between these competing accounts of what the ordinary case of a crime looks like.

Second, the residual clause leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony.

It is one thing to apply an imprecise standard of serious potential risk, which is the language of the provision, it's one thing to apply that to real world facts, it is quite another to apply it to a judge imagined abstraction, the ordinary crime of this sort.