The United States Supreme Court, in uncharacteristically quick fashion, declared Johnson v. United States retroactive as it applied to the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The case was argued on March 30th and a decision was released today, just over two weeks later. Last year the Supreme Court found that the residual clause was void for vagueness and invalidated its application. Today the Court determined in Welch v. United States that Johnson applies retroactively. From a practical perspective, this means hundreds, if not thousands, of post-conviction motions to overturn sentences will be filed.
In Johnson, the Supreme Court determined that the residual clause was void for vagueness. The residual clause is found in Chapter 18, United States Code, Section 924. In general, a person who is convicted under 922(g) faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison pursuant to 924(a)(2). However, if a person has been convicted of three or more prior violent or drug felonies, they face a minimum penalty of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison pursuant to 924(e)(1). The residual clause in 924(e)(2)(B)(ii) addressed violent offenses specifically, and included in the definition any crime that, “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” That language has been extremely controversial for many years, and in Johnson the Supreme Court found it was too vague to be interpreted under constitutional mandate. While the implications of such a finding were enormous, the number of people it effected was relatively small. It had no application to a person who had been sentenced prior to the decision. And, as you might imagine, a lot of people were in jail serving their 15-year minimum sentence before the case was decided.
Welch extends the holding of Johnson to all of those individuals who were sentenced prior to the holding in Johnson. That is very exciting news for people who were sentenced as an armed career criminal using a prior conviction that fell under the residual clause. Many Federal Defender offices have been preparing post-conviction motions under 18 U.S.C. 2255 seeking remand for re-sentencing under the anticipated Welch decision. The deadline for those applications is June 25, 2016. If you miss the deadline you will be barred from further relief. That is a huge deal considering that if you are successful on the motion your sentence will be reduced by a minimum of five years just by successfully applying. However, every case is fact specific and many courts around the country are sorting out whether many of the crimes that used to fall under the residual clause fit into the “force clause” or the “enumerated offense clause.” Whether Johnson applies retroactively to guideline career offender cases is still undecided. In any event, the United States Sentencing Commission has revised the Guidelines to account for the Johnson ruling to a certain extent.
The take-away here is that if you or someone you know was sentenced under the ACCA and you believe that one or more of the prior convictions fell under the residual clause you should start preparing immediately to file a motion with the Court for relief. This is wonderful news and will hopefully have a significant positive impact for many people serving long mandatory minimum sentences.