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SCOTUS rules vague sentencing law phrase unconstitutional

California residents are likely aware of recent important decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court. While a great deal of media attention has been given to landmark rulings concerning gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act, a June 1 decision by the court in a case involving the Armed Career Criminal Act has gone relatively unnoticed. The justices voted overwhelmingly that a catchall phrase in the federal sentencing law was unconstitutional.

The Armed Career Criminal Act provides stiffer sentences for individuals who commit crimes with guns and have at least three prior violent felony or serious drug charge convictions. While the criminal law statute lists several crimes that should be considered violent felonies, it also includes a catchall phrase indicating that any conduct presenting a serious risk of injury to others would qualify as a violent felony.

The case in question involved a Minnesota man who had been sentenced to prison for 15 years. His sentence would have been 10 years in prison, but prior convictions meant that the Armed Career Criminal Act was applied. The Supreme Court had earlier concluded that a prior conviction for carrying a shotgun did not count as a violent felony. The court then heard additional arguments about the constitutionality of the catchall phrase. The phrase was ruled unconstitutional by six votes to three.

Harsh sentencing laws often gain traction when the public becomes outraged about revolving door justice and violent criminal being released back onto the streets, but they are widely criticized for being unfair and tying the hands of judges. These laws also give prosecutors an advantage in plea negotiations. Defense attorneys in this situation may challenge evidence such as police reports, physical evidence and witness statements. Prosecutors must prove their case beyond reasonable doubt, and this may be difficult to do if their evidence cannot withstand close scrutiny.

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