The US Supreme Court on Monday struck down 18 USC § 924(c)(3)(B), a major federal statute with mandatory sentences for crimes committed with firearms, as unconstitutionally vague.
The opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, finds that the language of the statute is unconstitutionally vague and thus unfair to the defendant. The statute authorizes higher prison sentences for the use of a firearm in connection with certain other federal crimes. The residual clause of the statute identifies these crimes as “that by [their] nature, involv[e] a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” The statute adds a minimum of five years to a sentence for the presence of a firearm at all with increasing penalties if it is brandished and discharged. Gorsuch acknowledged the government’s position that a case-specific approach to the statute overseen by a jury would have avoided the problems in the present statute, but stopped short of finding that Congress adopted such a case-specific approach. Gorsuch and the majority found that to apply a case-specific approach here would throw an excessive amount of existing federal law into chaos as some law would be determined through a case-specific approach while some would be categorical. The majority affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s ruling vacating and remanding back to them for resentencing.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the dissent. He argued that the law has been successfully applied in tens of thousands of cases seemingly without issue. He further argued that the majority’s ruling now may lead to resentencings and releases of numerous inmates decades earlier than Congress intended in writing 924(c). He additionally argued that the majority actually created additional confusion by making numerous crimes that would have qualified now unable to be charged.
The case comes from the conviction of Maurice Davis, who, along with Andre Glover, committed a string of gas station robberies in Texas involving firearms. Davis was originally sentenced to more than 50 years in prison, but the Fifth Circuit will now be charged with resentencing him on all charges based on the Supreme Court’s holding.