JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
13-7120
Petitioner 
Samuel Johnson
Respondent 
United States
Decided By 
Advocates
(for the petitioner)
(Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent)
(Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent, reargument)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began investigating Samuel Johnson based on his involvement in an organization called the National Social Movement. Later in 2010, Johnson left that group to found the Aryan Liberation Movement. In November of that year, Johnson told an undercover FBI agent that he manufactured napalm, silencers, and other explosives for the Aryan Liberation Movement in addition to possessing an AK-47 rifle, several semi-automatic weapons, and a large cache of ammunition. In April 2012, Johnson was arrested at a meeting with his probation officer and admitted to possessing some of the previously mentioned weapons.

A grand jury charged Johnson with six counts of firearm possession, three of which relied on his classification as an “armed career criminal.” This classification was based on the fact that he had three prior felony convictions that the district court designated as “violent felonies”—attempted simple robbery, simple robbery, and possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Pursuant to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Johnson was then subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. Johnson argued that the convictions in question should not be considered violent felonies and that the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague. The district court held that the felony convictions in question were in fact violent felonies and that Johnson was an armed career criminal for the purposes of the mandatory minimum sentence required by the ACCA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Question 

Is the definition of "violent felony" in the Armed Career Criminal Act unconstitutionally vague?

Conclusion 
Decision: 8 votes for Johnson, 1 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Armed Career Criminal Act

Yes. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion of the 7-1 majority. The Court held that the residual clause of the Armed Criminal Career Act (ACCA)—that defines a “violent felony” as one involving “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another”—is unconstitutionally vague. Judicial precedent has held that laws that do not give ordinary people fair notice of what conduct is punished or can be enforced arbitrarily violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Because the residual clause of the ACCA gives no guidelines for how the court can assess whether the conduct in question poses a “serious potential risk of physical injury” and therefore qualifies as a violent felony, the residual clause allows for unpredictable and arbitrary enforcement in violation of the Due Process Clause. The Court also held that it was not bound to follow precedent that upheld the residual clause because subsequent cases had shown that the judicial interpretation of the clause was not sufficiently predictable.

In his opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the residual clause of the ACCA is unconstitutionally vague under both a categorical approach and a records-based approach. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment in which he argued that the case does not need to be resolved on Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause grounds; instead, the ACCA should not apply in this case because unlawfully possessing a short-barreled shotgun does not constitute a violent felony. Because the elements of the offense and records of convictions for possessing a short-barreled shotgun do not support the contention that the offense is inherently dangerous, the risk of harm is too remote from the conduct for the offense to constitute a violent felony. Therefore, the majority opinion did not need to nullify the residual clause in order to hold that Johnson should not be punished under the ACCA. Justice Thomas also argued that the field of vagueness jurisprudence has expanded to the point where it is used to invalidate democratically enacted laws and is now potentially beyond the bounds of due process jurisprudence.

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. wrote a dissent in which he argued that a statute is unconstitutionally vague only when it is vague in all of its applications. Because the residual clause of the ACCA can be construed in a manner that makes it constitutional by reading its language in the context of similar language in state and federal laws that direct a court to make fact-specific determination, the residual clause does not violate the Due Process Clause. Additionally, judicial precedent has upheld the residual clause, and this case presents no reason to overturn that precedent. Because the residual clause is constitutional and Johnson’s previous convictions constitute violent felonies, Justice Alito argued that the ACCA can be properly applied to his case.

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JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 29 July 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2014/2014_13_7120>.
JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2014/2014_13_7120 (last visited July 29, 2015).
"JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed July 29, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2014/2014_13_7120.