U.S. Supreme Court Considers Definition of “Violent” Felony as Applied to Federal Firearms Law

The federal Criminal Code imposes a variety of restrictions on people with felony convictions. The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) of 1984 prohibits convicted felons from owning or possessing firearms. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). This statute also imposes sentencing enhancements on people with three or more “violent felony” convictions. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). Since the precise definition of a “felony” varies from one jurisdiction to another, federal statutes attempt to provide general definitions. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the ACCA’s definition of “violent felony,” finding it to be unconstitutionally vague. Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). This year, the court held that the Johnson ruling applies retroactively to other individuals. Welch v. United States, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

In Welch, the court was asked to decide whether its ruling in Johnson was “substantive” or “procedural.” These two terms are not particularly well-defined, but a “substantive” ruling generally affects fundamental rights or obligations, and therefore it has an impact beyond the parties to a particular dispute. A “procedural” ruling, on the other hand, addresses the manner in which a court handled a particular case, and therefore it does not have such a far-reaching impact. This distinction appears in many important civil rights cases that invoke “substantive due process.”

The ACCA, like many federal statutes, broadly defines a “felony” as a criminal offense that carries a potential punishment of more than one year’s imprisonment. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). This definition, it is important to note, does not require an actual sentence of more than one year. A person who is convicted of such an offense but who receives a lesser sentence is still a “convicted felon” for the purposes of the ACCA.

If a person convicted of an ACCA violation has three or more convictions for “violent felonies,” they could face up to 15 years in prison instead of 10. 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). The ACCA defines “violent felony” in two ways. The “element clause,” id. at § 924(e)(2)(B)(i), identifies any felony—as previously defined by the statute—that includes actual, attempted, or threatened “physical force” as an element of the offense. The “residual clause,” id. at § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), identifies several specific offenses along with felonies “involv[ing] conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The Supreme Court struck down the residual clause on vagueness grounds in Johnson.

The defendant in Welch denied that at least one of his prior convictions met the ACCA’s definition of a “violent felony.” This was very similar to the issue presented in Johnson. His habeas corpus challenge was pending when the Supreme Court issued the Johnson ruling, and he successfully petitioned to that court for certiorari. He argued that Johnson established a “new substantive rule” and therefore applied retroactively to his case. Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348, 351 (2004). The court agreed, vacated the defendant’s sentence, and remanded the case.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown is a board-certified federal crime attorney who practices in West Texas. We advocate for the rights of people charged with alleged offenses at the state and federal levels. Contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you.

More Blog Posts:

Texas Judge Rules Civil Commitment Statute Unconstitutional, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 25, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Order Finding Restrictive Bail Provision Unconstitutional, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 2, 2016

Some Prosecutors Are Outsourcing Alleged Bad Check Cases to Private Debt Collectors, With Predictable Due Process Problems, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 11, 2013


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