The Supreme Court limited the scope of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes enhanced sentences on repeat offenders with a past of violent felonies, wrote Robert Barnes of the Washington Post.
It was the court’s latest examination of the 1984 law, often
criticized for vague wording, and it often splits the justices.
It was 5-to-4
decision was no exception.
Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch
joined the court’s three liberals to limit the reach of the law, which mandates
a 15-year minimum sentence for possessing a gun if the person has been
convicted of three or more violent felonies.
The question for the court was whether a conviction
involving recklessness, as opposed to knowingly or intentionally harming
another, counts as a “violent felony” to prompt the additional punishment.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a four-member plurality that
included Gorsuch, said the text of the law makes clear it could not.
The law mandates that an offense qualifies if it “has as an
element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the
person of another,” Kagan wrote, quoting the statute.
The phrase “use of physical force against the person of
another,” she wrote, “demands that the perpetrator direct his action at, or
target, another individual. Reckless conduct is not aimed in that prescribed
Thomas provided the fifth vote to sway the case for
defendant Charles Borden Jr., although he did not join Kagan’s 23-page opinion.
He said that just the phrase “use of physical force” was enough to convince
him, as it did in a previous case, that recklessness did not count.
“A crime that can be committed through mere recklessness
does not have as an element the ‘use of physical force’ because that phrase
‘has a well-understood meaning applying only to intentional acts designed to
cause harm,’ ” Thomas wrote, quoting his previous opinion.
The decision could mean a lighter sentence for Borden, a
felon who had a pistol when he was arrested in Tennessee in 2017.
Borden had three prior convictions of aggravated assault
under Tennessee law, and prosecutors invoked the Armed Career Criminal Act
(ACCA) to boost Borden’s sentence. Borden claimed that because one of the
convictions was for reckless aggravated assault, it did not count as a violent
A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th
Circuit disagreed. But other courts have found differently, prompting the
Supreme Court’s review.
Kagan, joined by Gorsuch and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and
Sonia Sotomayor, said Congress was careful in its wording to mandate the
enhanced sentencing only for some.
“The treatment of reckless offenses as ‘violent felonies’
would impose large sentencing enhancements on individuals (for example,
reckless drivers) far afield from the ‘armed career criminals’ ACCA addresses,”
Kagan engaged in a spirited back-and-forth with Justice Brett
M. Kavanaugh, who wrote for the other dissenters — Chief Justice John G.
Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett.
“If an individual fires a gun recklessly at a house and
injures someone inside, that individual has used force against the victim,”
Kavanaugh wrote. “If an individual recklessly throws bricks off an overpass and
kills a driver passing underneath, that individual has used force against the
victim. . . . It defies common sense and the English language to suggest otherwise.”
Kavanaugh said it was true that Congress did not write the
ACCA to “ensnare low-level or ordinary criminals.”
But “ACCA’s 15-year mandatory minimum sentence is triggered
only after a defendant is convicted of not one, not two, but three violent felonies
committed on separate occasions — and then proceeds to commit a fourth felony
by unlawfully possessing firearms,” Kavanaugh wrote in his 38-page dissent.
“Such repeated violent conduct is not the stuff of low-level
or ordinary criminals.”
The splintered decision and the strong emotions in the Kagan
and Kavanaugh opinions might have delayed its resolution. It was the court’s
oldest unresolved case of the term, argued Nov. 3.
The case is Borden v. United States.
To read more CLICK HERE