Friday, June 26, 2015

BREAKING NEWS: Has SCOTUS Lost Its Appetite for Sentencing Enhancements and Risk?

Amidst the good news that are not this blog's topic, about which you can read here and here, the Supreme Court also decided an important sentencing case, Johnson v. U.S.

The case involves the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, a habitual offender law that provides a sentencing enhancement upon committing the third violent offense. The residual clause of the law defines "violent offense" as any offense that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

In Johnson's case, the sentence was enhanced because his third offense was possession of a firearm (Johnson is a felon, and the firearm in question was a sawed-off shotgun. If you want more background, Johnson was being monitored for belonging to a white supremacist organization and being a source of concern re terrorism, and confessed to some pretty scary plans in that regard--so you can be sure thta this decision is not about his niceness).

The initial question put before the court was whether possession of a firearm fits the definition in the residual clause, but the Supreme Court asked the parties to brief on a broader issue: the definition of "violent offense" itself. Today, the Court sided 8-1 with Johnson, finding that the definition of "violent offense" was too vague and did not provide sufficient warning about conduct.

The vagueness, according to Justice Scalia who wrote for the majority (!!!), lies in the fact that the clause provides no guidelines for what counts as "risk" posed by the crime (statistics? similarity to enumerated offenses? precedents have taken various and different tacks) and for assessing the amount of "risk". Even seemingly easy issues turn out to be difficult to call. Notably, Scalia gives the example of "prison rioting", which he is willing to say is an offense that is defined so broadly that it doesn't necessarily generate "risk" of injury (!!!). Moreover, it is not necessary that a vague statute be "vague in all its applications".

The court also rejects the suggestion that "risk" be interpreted based on what each defendant actually did, rather than based on the average case. This is important in the facts of Johnson itself: It may well be that many felons in possession of a firearm don't pose as much risk as Johnson, a white supremacist with violent plans against progressives and minorities, but Johnson needs to be judged by the overall risk of the offense, not by his particular plans.

Finally, the court states that its decision is prompted by the massive confusion among lower federal courts on how to interpret the clause.

Justice Thomas arrives at the same conclusion via a different path--finding that possession of a firearm does not the definition in the residual clause. He agrees with the sole dissenter, Justice Alito, that the statute is not so vague as to merit its invalidation.

A few thoughts:

  1. It's hard to ignore the particular facts of this case given the tragic events of last week in South Carolina. Johnson's plans were similar to those that Roof put into action. Is the 8-1 decision here explainable, politically, via pro-gun sentiments among the conservative Justices?
  2. This decision might suggest that the Court has lost its appetite for sentencing enhancements. In Criminal Procedure II, I teach cases that have bent over backwards to uphold enhancements--including, in the case of California's Three Strikes, the ability to add two strikes at the same time (which obviously can't be justified by the need to deter--just by the wish to incapacitate.) Here we see that the Court pays a lot of homage to the idea of behavior modification, invoking the principle of legality. If I were teaching first year criminal law next year, I'd teach this case on the first day of class.
  3. The decision also highlights a disenchantment with the language of risk and panic, which has characterized so much of American criminal justice in the era of the "New Penology". 
  4. Many commentators on the new state of criminal justice, including me in Cheap on Crime, have pointed out that much of the new project of scaling back mass incarceration addresses nonviolent offenders, and retrenches opinions about violent offenders by lumping them all in the same category. I find it remarkable, and heartening, that this decision strikes at the heart of the issue, arguing against an overbroad category of violent offenses. I'm not sure Johnson should necessarily be on that side of the distinction, but as the Court states, this is about the offense, not about the offender.
  5. Finally, I find it notable that Justice Scalia--who, in Brown v. Plata referred to inmates as "speciments"--chose, as one of his examples, prison rioting, explicitly stating that the definition of rioting is so broad that it is not necessarily a violent offense. Attorneys in Ashker v. Brown, the lawsuit against long-term solitary confinement, should take note of this comment. I think it's important. It's the third Supreme Court statement this week that is sympathetic to prisoners.

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