RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida
DOCKET NO.: 15-6418
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Jan 08, 2016
ARGUED: Mar 30, 2016
DECIDED: Apr 18, 2016
Michael R. Dreeben - Deputy Solicitor General, for the respondent in support of vacatur and remand
Amir H. Ali - for the petitioner
Helgi C. Walker - for Court-appointed amicus curiae in support of the judgment below
Facts of the case
Police entered Gregory Welch’s apartment because they had reason to believe that a robbery suspect was on the premises. After obtaining Welch’s consent to search the apartment, the police located a gun and ammunition that Welch later identified as his own. Welch was subsequently arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, and he pleaded guilty. Because Welch had three prior felony convictions, the district court determined that the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) required that he be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison. Welch appealed his sentence and argued that one of his felonies, a conviction for “strong arm” robbery in Florida state court in 1996, did not qualify as a predicate offense for the purpose of the ACCA because, at the time he was convicted, Florida state law allowed for a conviction of robbery with a much lower level of force than the federal law required. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that Welch’s conviction for robbery under Florida state law was a predicate offense for the purpose of the ACCA because it involved force that was “capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.”
In 2013, Welch filed a collateral challenge to his conviction and argued that his prior conviction for strong arm robbery vague and that his trial counsel had been ineffective in allowing him to be sentenced under the ACCA. He sought a certificate of appealability to the appellate court, which the district court denied. Welch then sought a certificate of appealability from the appellate court and noted that there was a challenge to the ACCA based on its vagueness pending in the Supreme Court, Johnson v. United States. The appellate denied the certificate of appealability.
Three weeks later, the Supreme Court decided Johnson v. United States and held that the residual clause of the ACCA, which included action that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” in the definition of a violent felony, was unconstitutionally vague. The Court held that the residual clause violated the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendments because it was so vague that it failed to give people adequate notice of the conduct it punished. In order to apply the residual clause to a case, courts had to assess the “hypothetical risk posed by an abstract generic version” of the crime in question, which made the application of the clause unconstitutionally arbitrary and unpredictable.
Does the rule the Supreme Court announced in Johnson v. United States regarding what constitutes a violent offense apply retroactively?
Media for Welch v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 30, 2016 in Welch v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 2016 in Welch v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Today's orders of the Court have been duly entered and certified and filed with the clerk.
We are very pleased to have visiting with us this morning the Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin and other members of the Supreme Court of Canada.
On behalf of the Court, welcome!
Justice Kennedy has the opinion this morning in case 15-6418, Welch versus United States.
Anthony M. Kennedy:
The Armed Career Criminal Act imposes a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison on any person who possesses a firearm after that person has three or more convictions for a violent felony.
The Act defines the term violent felony in its first portions of the relevant section to include some specific crimes, such as burglary and arson.
Then the Act ends its definition of violent felony with a provision that is referred to generally as the residual clause, the residual clause is something that catch all.
It defines the term violent felony in more general terms to include crimes that involve – and this is a quote from a statute, “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”
Just last term this Court decided Johnson versis United States.
In Johnson the Court found that the "residual clause" is more unpredictable and arbitrary in its application than the Constitution allows, so the Court held the "residual clause" invalid because it was too vague for criminal statute.
Petitioner Gregory Welch is one of the many offenders sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act before Johnson.
The question presented in this case is whether Johnson should apply to prisoners like Welsh whose convictions became final before Johnson was decided.
The United States as respondent agrees with Welch that Johnson should have retroactive effect.
Since both parties agreed that Johnson should be retroactive, the Court appointed an amicus to argue the contrary position.
The decision from this Court called Teague versus Lane, the plurality opinion and this was decided in 1989, set forth the framework for deciding whether a new rule should apply to cases that have become final and are on collateral review. Under Teague, as a general matter, new procedural rules will not apply to cases that have become final before the new rule was announced.
New substantive rules, however, apply even in cases that have already become final.
Procedural rules regulate the range of permissible methods a court may use in applying the law to determine whether a defendant should be punished.
Substantive rules by contrast alter the range of conduct or the class of persons that the law punishes.
They include decisions that narrow the scope of a criminal statute by interpreting its terms as well as decisions that place particular conduct or persons covered by the statute beyond the state's power to punish.
Under this framework, procedural and substantive framework, the rule announced in Johnson is substantive.
By striking down the residual clause as void for vagueness; Johnson altered the range of conduct and the class of persons that the Armed Career Criminal Act punishes.
It follows that because Johnson is a substantive decision under Teague it applies in cases like Welch better on collateral review.
For these and other reasons set forth in the opinion, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Consistent with this opinion, Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.