Justice Neil Gorsuch joined with the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc to deal victory for criminal defendants Monday, striking down a federal law that punishes gun crimes as unconstitutionally vague.
The law at issue authorizes heightened penalties for individuals who use firearms to a commit a “crime of violence.” In dissent, Justice Brett Kavanaugh warned the decision would undermine public safety.
“Only the people’s elected representatives in Congress have the power to write new federal criminal laws,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “And when Congress exercises that power, it has to write statutes that give ordinary people fair warning about what the law demands of them.”
“Vague laws transgress both of those constitutional requirements,” Gorsuch added. “They hand off the legislature’s responsibility for defining criminal behavior to unelected prosecutors and judges, and they leave people with no sure way to know what consequences will attach to their conduct.”
Monday’s case involved defendants Maurice Davis and Andre Glover, who were charged and convicted with robbery and conspiracy arising from a string of gas station robberies in Texas in June 2014. Prosecutors also charged the pair under the heightened penalty law because they brandished a short-barreled shotgun in the course of those robberies.
The Supreme Court said Monday that the definition of “crime of violence” was too ill-defined to be constitutional. Under the heightened penalty law, a crime of violence is any offense that “by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used.”
When deciding whether an offense “involves a substantial risk” of force under the heightened penalty law, the courts do not look to the specific facts of the crime before them. Instead, they must estimate whether violence is likely in the ordinary commission of that crime. That kind of analysis, called the “categorical approach,” has been called unpredictable and arbitrary in closely related contexts, Gorsuch noted.
Defending the law before the Supreme Court, the Trump administration argued the heightened penalty law does not mandate the categorical approach and can be read to allow a fact-specific evaluation. Though Gorsuch agreed that might cure any vagueness problems, he said the law clearly requires the categorical approach.
“The statute simply cannot support the government’s newly minted case-specific theory,” Gorsuch wrote.
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SOURCE: Daily Caller – Kevin Daley