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Court Ruling on Vague Law Language May Help Some Convicted Felons

Jeff Cole
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Partner at Zimmer, Duncan & Cole

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In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently ruled a key clause in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) unconstitutional. This federal law required judges to increase, or enhance, the prison sentence of certain felons who committed their crimes with a firearm. It required a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison rather than the 10-year maximum sentence under the Gun Control Act. It applied to felons committing a crime with a firearm in the following situations:

  • The person had three or more earlier convictions for a serious drug offense.
  • The person had three or more earlier convictions for a violent felony.

The Court ruled that part of the definition of what constitutes a violent felony was “unconstitutionally vague” and unenforceable. This could be very important to you if you are convicted of a felony because the judge may no longer be able to increase your prison sentence. In addition, people who have had their prison term extended under ACCA could petition the court to have their sentences reduced.

The Focus of the Supreme Court Ruling 

In Johnson v. United States, Mr. Johnson pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The prosecutor wanted to enhance his sentence to 15 years to life based on three prior violent felony convictions—one for unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun, which is considered a violent felony.

A violent felony defined under ACCA included the phrase “or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of serious injury to another.” The court’s ruling focused on this residual clause and ruled:

  • It was unconstitutionally vague and unenforceable.
  • It could leave ordinary people uncertain about what it takes to qualify as a violent felon because this clause does not spell out what actions would constitute a violent felony.

Consequently, people charged with a felony may not see their sentences increased substantially under the ACCA. In addition, someone who was sentenced previously under the original law may be able to have his sentence reduced because of this ruling.

Have you been charged with a felony? Did you have your sentence enhanced under the ACCA? It is important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. At Zimmer, Duncan & Cole, LLP, we can honestly explain what you can expect during the criminal proceeding. Call us at 888-733-2992 to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.


Category: Criminal Defense


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