As a practitioner in the criminal law field, it is part of my job to keep updated on new case law that will affect my clients. This blog will seek to explain to you the latest development in criminal case law—coming from our highest court—the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has had no shortage of criminal law cases. This year for example, they have already ruled in Rodrigo v. U.S. that police cannot stop motorists longer than necessary at traffic stops. And recently, in Johnson v. U.S., it ruled that catch-all phrase in the Armed Career Criminal Act defining what crimes make a defendant eligible for a longer prison term was “too vague.”
In this case, Samuel Johnson plead guilty to a federal weapons charge in 2012 (firearms possession). He was sentenced to 15 years in prison—5 more than he would have gotten because he had prior convictions. The Armed Career Criminal Act, which is a federal law that has jurisdiction over all states, has a clause that treats past convictions as violent felonies, even if no violence occurred. If an offender has 3 prior convictions, the fourth automatically generates a 15-year prison sentence.
The Act lists burglary, arson, extortion, and use of explosives as specific categories or prior crimes that can lengthen one’s sentence. The Supreme Court, in a 6 to 3 majority, held that specific clause of the law unconstitutional.
How Does This Ruling Affect Me?
One of the reasons Armed Career Criminal Act clause was held unconstitutional was because different states may have different laws on prior offenses. Courts across the country have differed on what crime should be included in sentence lengthening, leading to inconsistent results. Faced with such uncertainty, defendants often take prosecutors’ plea deals rather than risk the federal statute’s 15-year sentence.
Thanks to this ruling, if you have prior federal convictions (depending on what they are), they will no longer make you eligible for a longer, 15-year sentence. However, it should still be noted that California has a very tough “3 strikes” law that has a long list of crimes that will make you eligible for life in prison if you are convicted 3 times of certain violent crimes. In that respect, our state’s 3 strikes law is much tougher than the Armed Career Criminal Act. It applies to state charges instead of federal charges.