Johnson v. United States,
576 U.S. ___ (2015)

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Justia Opinion Summary

After Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), the prosecution sought an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes an increased prison term upon a defendant with three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” a term defined by section 924(e)(2)(B)’s residual clause to include any felony that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The government argued that Johnson’s prior conviction for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun met this definition. The district court agreed and imposed a 15-year sentence under ACCA. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, rejecting prior holdings in which the Court had spoken to the clause. Imposing an increased sentence under ACCA’s residual clause violates due process because that clause is unconstitutionally vague. Courts use the “categorical approach” when deciding whether an offense is a violent felony, looking “only to the fact that the defendant has been convicted of crimes falling within certain categories, and not to the facts underlying the prior convictions.” Deciding whether the residual clause covers a crime requires a court to picture “the ordinary case,” and to judge whether that abstraction presents a serious potential risk of physical injury. The clause creates uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime and about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony. Holding the clause void for vagueness does not put other laws that use terms such as “substantial risk” in doubt, because those laws generally require gauging the riskiness of an individual’s conduct on a particular occasion, not the riskiness of an idealized ordinary case.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

johnson v. united states

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 13–7120. Argued November 5, 2014—Reargued April 20, 2015—Decided June 26, 2015

After petitioner Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, see 18 U. S. C. §922(g), the Government sought an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes an increased prison term upon a defendant with three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” §924(e)(1), a term defined by §924(e)(2)(B)’s residual clause to include any felony that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The Government argued that Johnson’s prior conviction for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun met this definition, making the third conviction of a violent felony. This Court had previously pronounced upon the meaning of the residual clause in James v. United States, 550 U. S. 192 ; Begay v. United States, 553 U. S. 137 ; Chambers v. United States, 555 U. S. 122 ; and Sykes v. United States, 564 U. S. 1 , and had rejected suggestions by dissenting Justices in both James and Sykes that the clause is void for vagueness. Here, the District Court held that the residual clause does cover unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, and imposed a 15-year sentence under ACCA. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Held: Imposing an increased sentence under ACCA’s residual clause violates due process. Pp. 3–15.

(a) The Government violates the Due Process Clause when it takes away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement. Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U. S. 352 –358. Courts must use the “categorical approach” when deciding whether an offense is a violent felony, looking “only to the fact that the defendant has been convicted of crimes falling within certain categories, and not to the facts underlying the prior convictions.” Taylor v. United States, 495 U. S. 575 . Deciding whether the residual clause covers a crime thus requires a court to picture the kind of conduct that the crime involves in “the ordinary case,” and to judge whether that abstraction presents a serious potential risk of physical injury. James, supra, at 208. Pp. 3–5.

(b) Two features of the residual clause conspire to make it unconstitutionally vague. By tying the judicial assessment of risk to a judicially imagined “ordinary case” of a crime rather than to real-world facts or statutory elements, the clause leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime. See James, supra, at 211. At the same time, the residual clause leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony. Taken together, these uncertainties produce more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates. This Court’s repeated failure to craft a principled standard out of the residual clause and the lower courts’ persistent inability to apply the clause in a consistent way confirm its hopeless indeterminacy. Pp. 5–10.

(c) This Court’s cases squarely contradict the theory that the residual clause is constitutional merely because some underlying crimes may clearly pose a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. See, e.g., United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U. S. 81 . Holding the residual clause void for vagueness does not put other criminal laws that use terms such as “substantial risk” in doubt, because those laws generally require gauging the riskiness of an individual’s conduct on a particular occasion, not the riskiness of an idealized ordinary case of the crime. Pp. 10–13.

(d) The doctrine of stare decisis does not require continued adherence to James and Sykes. Experience leaves no doubt about the unavoidable uncertainty and arbitrariness of adjudication under the residual clause. James and Sykes opined about vagueness without full briefing or argument. And continued adherence to those decisions would undermine, rather than promote, the goals of evenhandedness, predictability, and consistency served by stare decisis. Pp. 13–15.

526 Fed. Appx. 708, reversed and remanded.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., and Thomas, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Primary Holding

Criminal statutes that impose sentencing enhancements for violent felonies are unconstitutionally vague and violate due process if they define violent felonies broadly as conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

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