Author Topic: Extra penalty for committing crime while armed is "unconstitutionally vague"  (Read 482 times)

Offline Mr. Bill

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Reuters, 6/24/19: Supreme Court strikes down stiff firearms penalties

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Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the U.S. Supreme Court’s four liberal members on Monday in striking down as unconstitutionally vague a law imposing stiff criminal sentences for people convicted of certain crimes involving firearms. ...

The law, the most recent version of which was passed by Congress in 1986, imposed additional penalties on anyone who committed certain violent crimes while in possession of a firearm.

Gorsuch, appointed by Trump in 2017, wrote that laws passed by Congress must give ordinary people notice of what kind of conduct can land them in prison.

“In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all,” Gorsuch added. ...

Gorsuch said Congress could pass a more specific law to address the issue, but added that “no matter how tempting, this court is not in the business of writing new statutes to right every social wrong it may perceive.”...

Here's another article with more technical legal details:

Courthouse News, 6/24/19: Supreme Court Nixes Sentencing Law as Unconstitutionally Vague

Quote
The Supreme Court eviscerated a sentencing method that hinges on defining violent felonies, siding on Monday with two men convicted of a string of gas station robberies in Texas.

Maurice Davis and Andre Glover had been sentenced to 50 years and 41 years, respectively, under Section 924(c) of Title 18, a residual clause that threatens harsher penalties for those who use guns “in connection with certain other federal crimes.”...

Joined in the majority by the court’s liberal members, Justice Neil Gorsuch referenced two recent cases where the Supreme Court addressed the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act and another law that defines crime of violence. ...

Gorsuch also cited the 1820 case United States v. Wiltberger to note that ambiguity in the breadth of a criminal statute should be decided in the defendant’s favor.

“That rule is ‘perhaps not much less old than’ the task of statutory ‘construction itself,’” Gorsuch wrote. “And much like the vagueness doctrine, it is founded on … the plain principle that the power of punishment is vested in the legislative, not in the judicial department.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the lead opinion in full. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito meanwhile joined a dissent by Justice Brett Kavanaugh which Chief Justice John Roberts largely supported as well.

“A decision to strike down a 33-year-old, often-prosecuted federal criminal law because it is all of a sudden unconstitutionally vague is an extraordinary event in this court,” Kavanaugh wrote. ... "[W]hen we overstep our role [to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional] in the name of enforcing limits on Congress, we do not uphold the separation of powers, we transgress the separation of powers.”...

Offline DDJ

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If "Unconstitutionally Vague" becomes a yardstick, and I may be asking for a micrometer, does that imply that laws creating state federal agencies to oversee them would be measured the same and the "interpretations" the agency makes on the laws could be called into question.  I am thinking of the things that EPA, Agriculture, ATF, Education and the like are all regularly accused of.  Is that box open here?  There are plenty of people who are hurt financially or even jailed for these things. 

There is a piece of me that says great put the "Law creation" back in the hands of the elected officials and not some office monkey that wants to change the way things are done and uses his power to do it (or what he is told to do). 

The other side of me sees this as a bad thing.  All of the challenges to existing regulations could cost a fortune and will take up the courts time.

I am not sure which side of that fence I land on.

Over all I like where they are going with the decision, but it could have consequences in multiple directions.  I have often wondered where the though of laws written for people to read them went.

Offline Mr. Bill

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I'm looking at this decision and seeing a Supreme Court mostly divided into pro-gun liberals and anti-gun conservatives. :o

Okay, I know it's really about a "tough on crime" law, and not about firearms-related rights.  But I'm troubled about crimes that become magically different based on whether you were in possession of a gun at the time, even if you didn't use the gun or even remove it from concealment.

This decision doesn't address whether the "firearm enhancement" is legit itself, but only whether the law is written clearly enough to define when the enhancement applies.  That gets into some legal subtleties that are outside my ability to analyze.

Offline David in MN

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It feels to me like the "law and order" 80s are maybe finally coming to an end. If the pressure to eliminate penalties that double down on crimes comes from the lefties count me on their team. My read on Gorsuch skews a little more to the Constitutionalist/Libertarian so I'm not surprised.

It's high time the people of this country recognize these laws for what they are. When gramps was in his 20s he could load up the car with cases of machine guns, hand grenades, a gallon of LSD, any prescription (morphine) he wanted, and cruise down Main Street fearless. Maybe even stop to do shots of bourbon. And he took advantage as he (apparently from photos) liked to shoot shotguns while riding a Harley Davidson.

Put this in perspective: at one time congress thought the needed to amend the Constitution to ban alcohol. Last I looked we haven't repealed the 2nd.

ANd if the Supremes are a little tired of seeing a 16 year old tried as an adult and getting life plus 40 because he likes his blow in 3 baggies and had a Glock on his hip with the wrong kind of tattoo well, I'm on board. Nobody arrested Johnnie Tremain.