Latest ACCA Case Presents SCOTUS With a Loaded Question About Firearms

Latest ACCA Case Presents SCOTUS With a Loaded Question About Firearms

The U.S. Supreme Court ("SCOTUS") just reheard oral argument in an extremely important criminal case: Johnson v. United States. The Johnson case involves how the federal courts should interpret the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA"), and whether the current interpretation of the ACCA is unconstitutionally vague. Under the ACCA, which has been codified by 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), a federal firearms offender (namely, someone who has violated 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)), who has three prior "violent felony" convictions, whether in a state, federal, or foreign court, will be subject to a mandatory minimum 15 year prison sentence.

The reason why this case is so important? It may well redefine how lower courts have been interpreting the definition of "violent felony" in § 924(e)(2)(B). The statute states that the phrase "violent felony" means any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year if that crime either (1) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another, or (2) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. The italicized portion in the previous sentence is known as the "residual clause" and has been the subject of much debate in federal courts. Needless to say, in states like Massachusetts where simple assault and battery carries a penalty of up to 2 ½ years in county jail, this statute has caused a good deal of head scratching, as well as a plethora of unfair results.

In any event, the defendant in Johnson had a prior conviction in state court for possession of a sawed-off shotgun; the question for SCOTUS, therefore, was whether mere unlawful possession of a sawed-off shotgun falls under the "residual clause," i.e. whether mere possession of such a weapon involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. Because the vast majority of states do not prohibit the possession of sawed-off shotguns (so long as the owner of the weapon complies with either federal or state law), while only 10 states outright prohibit the possession of such weapons, this issue is particularly problematic.

This, then, begs the central question: if mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun "presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another," then why do the vast majority of states (40 of them) allow its citizenry to possess and carry them?

The defense in Johnson is facing one major hurdle: SCOTUS has upheld the constitutionality of the residual clause of the ACCA twice in the last decade, once in James v. United States in 2007 and again in United States v. Sykes in 2011. As such, it would be almost unprecedented for the Court to now reverse itself within 4 years of explicitly affirming itself, and less than 10 years within its initial decision. That said, while the constitutional challenge to the statute may be doomed to failure, the defense does make a forceful textual argument, supported by empirical data suggesting that mere unlawful possession of a firearm is not so dangerous as to constitute conduct which presents a serious risk of physical injury to another. However, SCOTUS will have to draw a line somewhere. As Justice Samuel Alito asked during the first oral argument for this case back in November 2014, "So you would say the same thing about any weapon... Mortars? ... Artillery pieces? ... a rocket...?" The question to be considered is on which side of the line will basic weapons like firearms, shotguns, and rifles fall? One can also only wonder whether or not whichever way SCOTUS eventually rules will also have broader implications well beyond the narrow confines of the ACCA. Stay tuned.

In any event, the defendant in Johnson had a prior conviction in state court for possession of a sawed-off shotgun; the question for SCOTUS, therefore, was whether mere unlawful possession of a sawed-off shotgun falls under the "residual clause," i.e. whether mere possession of such a weapon involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. Because the vast majority of states do not prohibit the possession of sawed-off shotguns (so long as the owner of the weapon complies with either federal or state law), while only 10 states outright prohibit the possession of such weapons, this issue is particularly problematic.

This, then, begs the central question: if mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun "presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another," then why do the vast majority of states (40 of them) allow its citizenry to possess and carry them?

The defense in Johnson is facing one major hurdle: SCOTUS has upheld the constitutionality of the residual clause of the ACCA twice in the last decade, once in James v. United States in 2007 and again in United States v. Sykes in 2011. As such, it would be almost unprecedented for the Court to now reverse itself within 4 years of explicitly affirming itself, and less than 10 years within its initial decision. That said, while the constitutional challenge to the statute may be doomed to failure, the defense does make a forceful textual argument, supported by empirical data suggesting that mere unlawful possession of a firearm is not so dangerous as to constitute conduct which presents a serious risk of physical injury to another. However, SCOTUS will have to draw a line somewhere. As Justice Samuel Alito asked during the first oral argument for this case back in November 2014, "So you would say the same thing about any weapon... Mortars? ... Artillery pieces? ... a rocket...?" The question to be considered is on which side of the line will basic weapons like firearms, shotguns, and rifles fall? One can also only wonder whether or not whichever way SCOTUS eventually rules will also have broader implications well beyond the narrow confines of the ACCA. Stay tuned.