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Supreme Court’s Void-for-Vagueness Decision and How it Applies Retroactively

In our criminal justice system, we base many of our statutes and laws on moral and safety policies to help preserve civilization and our society. As our society’s values change, so do the laws that apply. In many cases, when laws pass, their applicability begins immediately. However, where a law is struck down either by the United States Supreme Court or it no longer applies as a result of new legislation, there are questions as to how this new change will affect citizens currently and those who were affected in the past. Where a law is struck down and then applies to those who were affected previously by the law, such as those inmates who are serving prison sentences because of violations against the previous law, then it is found to apply retroactively. Retroactively applying a law may lead to lower sentences or even may lead to the release of hundreds or thousands of inmates.

Johnson v. United States’s Void-for-Vagueness Decision

The United States Supreme Court held back in June 2015, in Johnson v. United States, that the Armed Career Criminals Act’s residual clause, which defined that a violent felony is any behavior that could cause serious risk of physical injury or harm to another person, was void. The Armed Career Criminals Act is a federal law put in place to make stricter punishments for those defendants who convicted of an illegal gun possession and who had at least three convictions previously for violent felonies. In other words, a felon who is in possession of a firearm may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison; the Armed Career Criminals Act increases this sentence to 15 years up to life in prison where the offender has had three or more prior violent felony convictions. The Supreme Court found that the definition for “violent felony” was too vague, and therefore should be voided. The question that was left dealt with the retroactivity of this change in law to those who were convicted under this law for any violent felonies defined in the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminals Act.

Supreme Court’s Decision to Retroactively Apply Change of Law

The Supreme Court decided this question in April 2016 in a Florida case known as Welch v. United States, where the Supreme Court ruled that the ruling of Johnson v. United States applied in this case and therefore applied retroactively to Welch’s conviction. Though retroactively applying could have a serious impact on those who were placed in prison under the Armed Career Criminals Act, and could possibly lead to overturning convictions and the release of others, these defendants are not necessarily entitled release if another federal law applies with a more accurate definition of “violent felony”.

How This Retroactive Applicability Works

In other words, to apply retroactively and permit the release of a criminal defendant, the defendant must have only been convicted due to the applicability of the vague definition of “violent felony” as found in the Armed Career Criminals Act. If, for example, the defendant was affected by the act but also was charged under another federal act with a more precise definition, he or she could still be subject to his/her prison sentence since another federal law that he or she was convicted under is triggered. There will most likely be several cases that will arise as a result of this new ruling.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a violent felony, it is important to speak with an experienced defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik who can guide you through the criminal justice system and advocate on your behalf throughout your proceedings. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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