R. Todd Bennett, P.C.
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Federal sentencing law phrase ruled unconstitutionally vague

Texas residents are likely aware that parts of laws are sometimes struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. Federal sentencing laws have been widely criticized as unfair and capricious by justice advocates and judges, and a passage in one such law was ruled unconstitutionally vague by the Supreme Court on June 26. The Armed Career Criminal Act was the law in question, and the passage the justices took issue with was a catchall phrase describing the prior offenses that would warrant the law's application.

The Armed Career Criminal Act was passed in 1984 to protect the public from violent repeat offenders, and it provides for stiffer sentences in criminal cases involving individuals who have been convicted of serious drug offenses or violent crimes on three or more previous occasions. While the law lists some offenses that should be considered violent crimes, it also includes a catchall phrase indicating that any crime that may cause serious harm to others would meet the required standard.

The Supreme Court made the ruling after hearing the case of a Minnesota man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The man would have faced a 10-year sentence had it not been for prior convictions including a gun possession charge. The justices initially ruled that the provisions of the 1984 law should not have been applied because the possession of a shotgun should not be considered a violent crime. The court then ordered additional arguments on the constitutionality of the catchall phrase. The phrase was subsequently ruled unconstitutional after a six to three vote.

Criminal defense attorneys may object to mandatory sentencing laws because they place prosecutors in a powerful position and tie the hands of judges. These laws often make negotiating a fair plea agreement difficult, and they may also lead to more appeals. Defense attorneys could seek to avoid the possibility of mandatory sentences by vigorously challenging the credibility and admissibility of the evidence in criminal cases.

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