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Court Limits Reach of Federal 3-Strikes Career Criminal Law

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

It's not easy to make a career in crime these days. The banks are cracking down on scoff-law traders, Google Earth is tracking your illegal logging, and even old-fashioned, violent criminals are routinely given decade-long sabbaticals due to sentencing enhancements.

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, certain violent offenders are subject to mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years if they have been thrice convicted of crimes involving "a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."

What exactly qualifies as such a crime can be hard for career criminals and federal courts to determine. And that's exactly the problem, the Supreme Court ruled in one of its last cases of the term. The ACCA's so called "residual clause," quoted above, is unconstitutionally vague, the Court ruled, failing to give adequate guidance to courts and offenders both.

The ACCA's Residual Clause

The ruling isn't a total blow to the Armed Career Criminals Act, but it does limit its reach slightly. The ACCA is a federal "three strikes" statute, which imposes mandatory minimums if offenders have been classified as armed career criminals. To qualify, a defendant must have three prior serious drug or violent felony convictions.

Some violent felonies are straight-forward. The ACCA calls out burglary, arson, and extortion by name. The residual clause, however, seeks to expand the Act's coverage beyond an enumerated list, to crimes involving a serious risk of violence.

Are Sawed-Off Shot Guns Violent?

In this case, the serious risk of violence was attached to the possession of a sawed-off shot gun. Samuel Johnson, an unsympathetic white supremacist from Minnessota, plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The government sought an ACCA enhancement, based on his three previous strikes, one of which was a conviction for possessing a sawed-off shot gun.

Circuits were split on whether possession of a sawed-off shot gun was a violent crime under the ACCA, and the Supreme Court was originally supposed to decide this issue. After oral arguments, however, the Court called the parties back to argue the constitutional question -- whether the ACCA's residual clause was so vague that it violated due process.

Taking the Guesswork Out...

The Court's opinion, written by Scalia and joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Bryer, Sotomayor and Kagan, notes that the ACCA's residual clause has been difficult to apply and resulted in arbitrary sentences.

Since the ACCA treats crimes categorically, instead of looking at whether individual instances were violent, courts were often left relying on "guesswork and intuition" when determining if the ACCA applied. That fails to give people fair notice of what the statute punishes, the Court held, violating the requirements of due process.

...Sort Of

With the residual clause struck down and the ACCA trimmed of some power, it will now be up to lower courts to determine what happens to those previously sentenced under the clause.

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