Notes on Johnson v. United States and the Armed Career Criminal Act

In Johnson v. US, SCOTUS struck down part of the Armed Career Criminal Act – a federal law which imposes enhanced penalties (a fifteen year mandatory minimum sentence) on those convicted of certain federal firearms charges based on their criminal histories.

One of the ways the ACCA’s enhanced penalties can be triggered is if the defendant has three or more “violent felonies” in their criminal history.  Without getting too much into the weeds, Johnson greatly reduces the number of offenses which can qualify as violent.  So a lot of defendants who might otherwise be subject to the Act will now be able to avoid it.

The cases raises some interesting questions.  Will prisoners serving ACCA sentences be able to now get reductions?  Is the career offender guideline section, which has similar language but somewhat different requirements and penalties, also void for vagueness?  Will this case trigger a revival of void for vagueness challenges to other laws?

SCOTUS decision on criminal threats in United States v. Elonis

We have previously commented on United States v. Elonis, a criminal threats case before the Supreme Court this term.  The decision came down today, in favor of the defendant.

The defendant had been convicted at trial of threatening several individuals on Facebook.  The trial judge refused to instruct the jury that a conviction required proof that the defendant intended to make a threat.  Although the jury was told that the government must prove that a reasonable person would interpret the defendant’s words (or “posts”) as a threat, it did not have to prove the defendant meant his words to be taken that way.

The Supreme Court decided these instructions were error and that the statute required proof of the defendant’s intent to threaten.  The ruling was based on the Court’s long tradition of interpreting criminal statutes to require intent unless the legislature clearly intended otherwise.  The question of whether proof of “recklessness” was sufficient to meet this burden was left open.

Unfortunately for state court practitioners, the Court did not decide whether the First Amendment requires proof of intent to threaten.  Because federal law required proof of intent, it was not necessary for the Court to decide if the Constitution did as well.  The case will therefore have limited application outside the federal courts.