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U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Law That Vaguely Imposes Additional Prison Time for Crimes Committed with Firearms

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On June 24, the US Supreme Court made an important decision in striking down a law that imposed additional criminal penalties onto sentences for people convicted of certain crimes that involve firearms. The court maintained that the law was unconstitutionally vague and violated citizens’ due process rights by failing to place people on notice as to what conduct would accrue additional prison time. In the words of the majority opinion, “in our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all.” Had the Court upheld the law, the defendants–convicted of multiple robbery counts–would have served between 41 and more than 50 years in prison because they were convicted of brandishing shotguns during a crime of violence.

The Law at Issue

In this case, the law tacked on long prison sentences for anyone who used a firearm in connection with certain other this includes; it only indicated that they are “felonies that, by their nature, involve a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” Violators faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison above and beyond any other sentence received for the underlying crime; however, this increased to seven years if the defendant brandished a firearm, and 10 if they discharged it. In addition, defendants using very specific types of weapons—such as a short-barreled shotgun—also triggered enhanced penalties, such as a minimum sentence of 10 years, and multiple violation carried a minimum sentence of 25 years.

Even the government agreed that this language provided no reliable way to determine which offenses qualify as “crimes of violence,” and is thus unconstitutionally vague.

The Decision

The Court pointed out that it is the job of the legislature to write federal criminal laws, and when it does, it has to provide “ordinary people” with “fair warning about what the law demands of them.” The Constitution prohibits the enforcement of vague laws based on due process and separation of powers: While due process mandates that laws must provide people notice of what the law demands of them, separation of powers also dictates that it is only elected representatives that determine what acts are crimes, and vague statutes like these—which leave this judgment over to judges, police, and prosecutors instead—hand that responsibility to them in violation of the separation of powers pillar.

Contact Our Criminal Justice Attorneys

If you have been arrested, contact our experienced New City criminal defense attorneys at the office of Phillip J. Murphy to ensure that you are not the victim of unfair, unconstitutional laws that impose unjust prison time onto sentences. 

Resources

reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-guns/supreme-court-strikes-down-stiff-firearms-penalties-idUSKCN1

supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/18-431_7758.pdf

law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/924

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