The U.S. Supreme Court issues opinions all the time, but rarely does a decision have such a drastic effect that can result in hundreds of prisoners around the country, including Illinois, being released. Earlier this month in Welch v. United States, the Supreme Court resolved a months-long split among the circuits that another decision from last year is retroactive, and defendants who were wrongly convicted under a provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act can be released if they appeal their convictions.
A Vague Law is Struck Down
The Armed Career Criminals Act states that if a defendant is convicted of a crime involving the use of a firearm, and has three or more previous convictions for a “serious drug offense” or a “violent felony,’ then a court must sentence a defendant to a minimum of 15 years in prison for the new crime. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
The act defines a “violent felony” as a crime punishable by more than one year in prison involving force, arson, burglary, explosives extortion, “or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”
Last year, in Johnson v. United States, the Court took issue with this language, finding that it was so vague that it was unconstitutional. After all, virtually any criminal conduct could cause some physical injury, but many of these crimes are not nearly as serious as burglary or arson.
Almost as quickly as Johnson was decided, renewed challenges to the Armed Career Criminals Act flooded federal courts. The issue was whether challenges to the law could retroactively result in sentences being reduced. The Court’s decision in Welch was that Johnson can indeed be applied retroactively to Armed Career Criminals Act convictions.
This means that there are potentially hundreds of inmates who have been convicted under this “residual clause” of the act who can now appeal their convictions.
However, it’s important to note that the Court’s decision isn’t exactly a “get out of jail free card.” The conviction of the defendant in Welch was remanded to the original court for review. The court cannot let the conviction stand on the grounds that a firearm was used in connection with illegal conduct that poses “a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” but if the lower court finds that the defendant’s conduct fell under some other provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act, then the conviction will stand. It’s still a developing area of the law, so if you or a loved one have been convicted under a provision of the act, you should consult with an appellate attorney to discuss your options.
Chicago Criminal Appeals Lawyer
The law is always changing, and when appellate courts strike down laws, that may mean that you can get a sentence reduced or vacated. There’s no reason to deal with an unnecessarily harsh sentence for a moment longer if it will no longer hold up in court. Appeals can reverse convictions and sentences. For more information, contact the Chicago offices of Barney & Hourihane today for a consultation.