When it comes to criminal statutes, the Supreme Court has long-held that the language must be concise, clear, and specific enough to place citizens “on notice” of exactly what sort of conduct is prohibited. If a criminal statute is too vague – presumably leaving its applicability open to the government’s subjective interpretation – it is usually deemed unconstitutional and lawmakers are sent back to the drawing board.
At the conclusion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Spring 2015 term, the Court tackled a less-publicized – but incredibly important – criminal law matter involving the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). The ACCA, which was enacted in 1984, imposes a greater sentence upon an offender convicted of possession of a firearm if that offender has committed three or more “violent felonies” in the past.
The term “violent felony” is defined in the ACCA as any felony that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Naturally, this definition left the interpretation of “violent felony” open to the whims of the judge faced with the case – a phenomenon strictly prohibited by the constitution’s “void for vagueness” jurisprudence.
Accordingly, when a Minnesota offender received an enhanced sentence following a conviction for possessing a sawed-off shotgun, his criminal defense attorneys quickly asserted that, on a constitutional level, the ACCA’s definition of “violent felony” is way too vague for citizens to understand – and mere possession of the firearm did not necessary present a serious potential risk of injury to any other person.
The case made its way through the federal court system and on June 26, 2015, it was ultimately reversed and remanded to the trial court for further consideration. In the end, the Court held that the language describing a violent felony was simply too vague to pass constitutional muster, and lawmakers need to either scratch the clause from the statute or re-word it all together.
Justice Scalia Delivers Majority Opinion in 8-1 Holding
The “void for vagueness” concept hinges on the Fifth Amendment and its Due Process protections. Specifically, the doctrine asserts that where a criminal statute is too unclear, “it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes.” Further, the Fifth Amendment is interpreted to prohibit “standardless” statutes prone to arbitrary enforcement.
In applying this notion, the Court found two distinct problems with the ACCA. First, the clause “potential risk” is too subjective, and varies greatly from case to case. The Court offered the seemingly innocuous crime of witness tampering, which does not – on its face – seem to fit the ACCA’s definition of a “violent felony;” that is, until an offender threatens a witness with injury or death for testifying. How does the Court decipher this on a practical level? It can’t.
Secondly, the Court grappled with the preceding “serious” condition required of the “potential risk” punishable by the ACCA. What does “serious” mean when applied in these cases? What if one court deems a potential risk as exceptionally “serious,” and another court takes a dimmer view?
By way of example, the Court asked, “Does the ordinary burglar invade an occupied home by night or an unoccupied home by day? Does the typical extortionist threaten his victim in person with the use of force, or does he threaten his victim by mail with the revelation of embarrassing personal information?” It’s too hard to say, and the clause “produces more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates.”
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