The Supreme Court on Monday invalidated a key part of a law designed to prevent gun violence, saying it left too much leeway to judges to decide what is considered a violent crime.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices said Congress was too vague when it wrote language slapping extra federal penalties on people who used guns while committing a “crime of violence.”
The problem, the court said, was that judges have no clear guidance on what falls under that term.
“In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all. Only the people’s elected representatives in Congress have the power to write new federal criminal laws,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in the court’s opinion.
The ruling could lead to thousands of new appeals from people convicted under the vague law, prosecutors warned.
The case involved two men who were convicted of a string of gas station robberies in Texas.
They were tried in federal court and sentenced for the robberies. But because they carried a short-barreled shotgun during the crimes, they were sentenced to 35 extra years each under the Gun Control Act.
Under that law, someone who carried a weapon during a crime earns an extra five-year sentence. It rises to seven years if the gun is brandished and 10 years if the weapon is fired. The terms must run consecutive with other sentences.
The statute says crimes of violence are those when physical force is used or threatened against a person or property.
But the justices have long grappled with what, exactly, meets that definition.
Justice Gorsuch said laws must be clear enough that people of normal intelligence have “fair notice of what the law demands of them.” Yet under the Gun Control Act, judges were parsing what sorts of threats rose to the level of force, or risk of force, needed to be considered violent.
Monday’s ruling is the latest in a string of cases to tackle vague laws dealing with crimes of violence.
In 2015, the court ruled the Armed Criminal Career Act’s reference to a “violent felony” wasn’t clear enough.
Then last year the court, in another a 5-4 ruling, struck out a “crime of violence” provision in immigration law that had governed when some migrants could be deported.
“Vague statutes threaten to hand responsibility for defining crimes to relatively unaccountable police, prosecutors and judges, eroding the people’s ability to oversee the creation of the laws they are expected to abide,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing a dissent joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the Gun Control Act was successful and should have remained in place.
“Many factors have contributed to the decline of violent crime in America. But one cannot dismiss the effects of state and federal laws that impose steep punishments on those who commit violent crimes with firearms,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote.
John Marti, a former federal prosecutor now practicing at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, said the decision will lead to a tidal wave of appeals from defendants convicted under the statute now struck down.
“Today the Supreme Court eliminated this powerful tool for federal prosecutors in combating violent crime, by finding that the statute is unconstitutionally vague by using the phrase ‘crime of violence,’” Mr. Marti said.
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