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.